Thursday, 27 June 2013

Fantasy Review: 'In Wilder Lands' by Jim Galford

And now for something completely different... or at least, new to me. Estin, the hero of this book, is a wildling, a kind of humanoid animal, one of whole variety of such animals superficially resembling actual animals (fox, bear, ferret, etc) but able to speak and act in many ways like humans. They live in packs in the woods, but their lifestyle is not unlike a kind of technology-free human existence. It's an uneasy juxtaposition. Estin has an enhanced sense of smell, he has fur, he climbs well with clawed paws, yet he walks on two legs most of the time, he talks and thinks and in many ways behaves in very unanimal-like ways. The wildlings are not anthropomorphised animals, they're a hard-to-define mixture of human and animal. I'm not sure whether I like it.

The story opens in a very traditional way. Estin was orphaned at a young age, his family slaughtered before his eyes, and since then he's scratched a precarious living stealing and scavenging on the city streets, and avoiding being captured by slavers. He's asked to undertake a difficult mission to settle some debts. So far, so very dull. But his accomplice is a gypsy girl with an agenda of her own and during the mission Estin encounters Feanne, another wilding, and the first he's seen in the city who isn't a slave. They escape together and Feanne takes Estin back to meet her rather bizarre pack.

None of this is original in plot terms. The orphan finding out about himself and his heritage is a trope almost as old as the genre. There's always room for a new spin on things, though, and the author's inventiveness is exemplary. The wildlings themselves are original enough to leave plenty of scope for revealing new and intriguing twists. The wildlings based on predators don't get along terribly well with the wildlings based on prey animals, for instance.

The use of magic is a bit random. It seems that they can do whatever the plot needs them to do. If there was any logical system to it, I never found it. The healing power is particularly convenient. An injured good guy can be healed almost without constraint (there are a few limitations, but not many). Even when dead, they can be coaxed back to life by healing their injuries and then cajoling the detached spirit back into the body (which doesn't always work, since the spirit has a mind of its own). Eventually the healer will get tired, but a lot of healing can be done before the batteries are flat (so to speak).

One aspect the author did rather well was the way different characters spoke in different ways. The gypsy girl had a very strong accent, and Soren the ferret-like character has a kind of speech which bounces uncontrollably just like he does. Then there is Finth the dwarf, who (again traditionally) fulfils the role of plucky comic relief. Humour is always welcome in a long, battle-heavy work of fantasy, but some of Finth's joke were a little too modern for my taste - I have difficulty suspending disbelief when a dwarf talks about rugrats, for instance.

The characters are quite nicely drawn. Even if they never quite came alive for me (the human/animal thing mentioned above) there was a lot of depth to many of the characters which I appreciated. There was also some interesting philosophy in there, between battles or skin-of-the-teeth escapes, especially between the various races (or species, I suppose). Estin himself isn't quite as riveting as he might be - again, he falls square into the traditional line of little person who becomes central to the plot. He isn't quite the long lost heir to the kingdom, but he does acquire a lot of abilities - warrior skills and magic - in a very short time. He's also way too restrained and honourable for my taste. I like a hero who has a few human (or wilding) weaknesses. Feanne, the complex and driven fox-type character, is, to my mind, far more interesting. Although she’s unstable and overly aggressive, with a tendency to fight to the death first and then (possibly, if she feels like it) ask questions later, this makes a refreshing change from subservient or the typical sort of warrior babe. I was disappointed when such a strong character fell apart emotionally half way through the book.

One grumble. Estin knows nothing of his heritage because he was orphaned (obviously). This means that he transgresses in some way or other every few pages, just from not knowing the rules. Yet no one ever seems to make allowance for him, or to explain properly what he's done wrong. It's all "Oh no, you shouldn't have done that!" and then maybe some pretty nasty repercussions. His training in the wildling group is all pretty cryptic too, so that when someone turns on him, he's not sure whether it's a genuine problem or a test of some sort. He is very patient about all this, but I would be seriously ticked off about these repeated tests and the lack of clear-cut explanations.

A minor grumble. There are quite a lot of little typos and such-like - 'taught' instead of 'taut', for example - and odd words missing or misplaced, which mar an otherwise professional piece of work. However, I've had the book sitting on my Kindle for over a year, however, so it's possible these have now been tidied up. There is a certain sloppiness in the writing, however, which only a ruthless rewrite would eliminate.

After the midpoint, the book becomes quite episodic, jumping from one situation to another unpredictably and abruptly. While I like to be surprised, this was a little too choppy for my taste. It also ran into the typical problem of the nobody-to-hero trajectory: Estin becomes very powerful, especially in his magic, and that becomes a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card in numerous situations. I also disliked what I can only describe as a lot of soppiness over the children, and a great deal of artificially generated tension between Estin and Feanne. In fact, much of the later part of the book felt rather contrived, as if, having got the characters to a certain logical point within this book, the author needed to rearrange everything ready for the next volume. Either that or the author had a quota for fight scenes. Some of this is inevitable, but it felt to me very drawn out and stretched beyond sensible limits. A little tightening up here, eliminating the in-camp arguments altogether (oh no, not another leadership challenge...), and perhaps reducing the number of hooray-we’ve-escaped-oh-no-we-haven’t moments, would have been a great improvement.

This is an unusual and readable story, well written bar a few quirks. For those who enjoy action, there’s plenty here, with an array of traditional fantasy races (even halflings! don’t see many of those nowadays), as well as the wildlings, a whole zombie army, fae, dragons, elemental spirits of some sort and a really creepy mist thing. The magic is a pretty mixed bag, too. The ending lost the plot a little, with one melodramatic moment after another, without a respite or much detectable logic. There’s some depth to both world and characters, and the themes of family, race and slavery were well made, if a little heavy-handed. I found the mixing of animal and human characteristics problematic, it just didn't work for me. I'm equally happy with human or non-human characters in a book, but I found this to be an uneasy blend of the two. That's a personal preference, no more than that, and in other respects the book is excellent, but I can't give it more than three stars.

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