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Lost in the realm

Gwen Ansell

Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged: Book Two of the First Law (Gollancz) puts some very modern preoccupations -- the nature of war and the motivation of torturers -- under the fantasy glass. His main protagonists are, in his own words, "a crippled torturer, a sneering, self-serving nobleman and a psychopathic barbarian with a bloody history", writes Gwen Ansell.

Joe Abercrombie’s Before They Are Hanged: Book Two of the First Law (Gollancz) puts some very modern preoccupations—the nature of war and the motivation of torturers—under the fantasy glass. His main protagonists are, in his own words, “a crippled torturer, a sneering, self-serving nobleman and a psychopathic barbarian with a bloody history”. The Blade Itself: Book One of the First Law established character and context. Book Two moves the plot along more briskly, as the characters fumble towards some form of redemption while conflict destroys their world. The barbarian falls in love, the nobleman sees through the gilded cant about just causes for war and the torturer begins committing small, random acts of mercy. (Literary myth, of course, would have that kind of moral trajectory reserved only for “serious”, rather than genre fiction.)

Abercrombie writes well: he’s direct, wryly witty and visual. But as a fan of noir detective fiction—he cites James Elroy—he also plots tightly. The torturer begins to grasp the real horror: how wars make money and how money manufactures wars. As he stumbles on this truth he begins to be compromised by it. The volume three denouement is likely to be complex, sombre and bloody and the whole series, with its emphasis on character and plot rather than world-building, will please fans of writers such as KJ Parker.

No one can accuse Katharine Kerr of not taking world-building seriously. The Gold Falcon: Book Four of the Dragon Mage (Harper Voyager) is the 12th volume in her Deverry series, following the fates of characters reincarnated over centuries to put right an ancient wrong in a pre-medieval Celtic world. Kerr’s a more skilful and original writer than that summary would suggest and the idea of tracking conflicts that play out differently each time their social context changes is an interesting one—but the repeated cycles of the epic are beginning to feel like a stuck record.

Kate Elliot’s last series, Crown of Stars, took medieval politics and theology into a dark, close-grained fantasy world that held readers through seven long volumes. Spirit Gate: Book One of Crossroads by Kate Elliot (Orbit), which opens a new series, uses the familiar end-of-empire riff to explore the nature of moral decay. Solid characters and assured writing underpin the theme that corruption is not some drooling fanged monster out of the north, but a far more nightmarish creature lurking in human hearts.

Celia Friedman’s previous Coldfire trilogy was sombre fantasy in which compelling characters wrestled with the ethics of vampirism. A similar theme dominates Feast of Souls: Book One of the Magister Trilogy (Orbit). Magic practitioners cannot survive without draining either their own life force or that of others. There’s a gender spin: women stay witches and die young; men become magisters, preying on others, and immortal. Friedman’s world is vividly constructed, her characters convincing and the debates engaging. But the backdrop employs every plot cliché in the Lord of the Rings spell book: an ancient evil arising in the North; innocent shire-dwellers horribly slaughtered; and so on. It’s skilful enough writing, but don’t expect any twists in the tale.

Stephen Baxter can be either a vividly compelling alternate history writer or a rather dull one. Conqueror: Time’s Tapestry Book Two (Gollancz) falls into the second category. It’s a bit like the Bayeux Tapestry: the attention to detail is meticulous, but the characters are stiff as stitchery. We already know the outcome of the Battle of Hastings and nothing here makes us care more. Repeated, clumsily underlined references to Aryan destiny—the plot of the trilogy features a prophecy—suggest the series might conclude in a Berlin bunker in 1945. Readers of Sara Douglas’s Troy Game series, which manipulates similar history, might wonder if the two authors attended the same summer school.

Australian fantasy writers seem to be fond of tales featuring Chosen Ones and spirits with a penchant for swapping bodies, and Trudi Canavan is no exception. Last of the Wilds: Age of the Five, Book Two (Orbit) has both, not to mention a cute, lisping alien pet and a spot of incorporeal sex with a fickle god. Give it a miss.

Tadd Williams’s Shadowplay (Orbit) (the second volume in the Shadowmarch series) is an extremely long, complex, sub-Tolkien farrago of faithful soldiers, feisty princesses and silent elves. This particular elf is more silent than most, as he has no mouth. Shadowplay is adequately written and the adventure rollicks along, but the book is essentially fantasy by the yard.

Moving on to sci-fi, Elizabeth Moon is a prolific writer of both fantasy (the Paksenarrion/Gird series) and space opera. She has also produced an excellent contemporary novel about autism. Vatta’s War, her current space opera series, has grown up a lot from the jolly japes and melodramatic villains of her previous seven-book Serrano Legacy epic. Characterisation and world-building are much stronger. Moon’s own experience as a United States marine lends insight and authenticity to a range of themes, from women in command structures to battle tactics and decision-making. If you’re looking for action-driven light reading, Command Decision: Book Four of Vatta’s War (Orbit) is enjoyable and sufficiently self-aware to avoid shallowness.

Alastair Reynolds writes gripping, fast-moving stories. The worlds he has created, with their feral nano­technology, uneasy relations with alien civilisations and downright weird lifestyle choices among citizens offer enough potentially intriguing plotlines for a dozen more books. The Prefect (Gollancz) takes us back to the world of Revelation Space and is, essentially, another noir detective novel, this time about murder and the subversion of democracy. But, this being Reynolds, whose plotlines interlink like fine-knit mesh, it also solves mysteries raised in that earlier book and poses a few tough questions of its own—such as: When lifestyles get too weird, does democracy still apply?

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