Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Light of Kerrindryr' by H Anthe Davis

This could be the world's shortest review. I could just say: this book is piking awesome. Read it. The end.

Or I could tell you exactly why it’s so awesome (a much, much longer review). So let’s do that. Settle down, I’m going to ramble a bit so this may take some time.

I read a lot of debut fantasy, and there's no way to predict exactly what you might get. Even the sample isn't a good guide, because a promising opening can sometimes tail off disappointingly. Mostly, I find them to be varying shades of mediocre; imaginative but ploddingly written, or nicely executed but trite. Very occasionally, something truly exceptional turns up. I've been lucky enough to find a few such gems in the last year or two, and this one is right up there with the best of them. It has great characters, awesome world-building, an incisive writing style and a rapid-fire plot with a surprising twist on almost every page. There’s a slightly slow start with a deluge of hard-to-grasp detail, but once I got past that, the story sucked me in and never let go.

I have to mention the world-building first. There are two kinds of fantasy authors: one kind draws a squiggly-edged continent, adds several kingdoms, three rivers and a mountain range, decides how many gods are in the prevailing religion and - we’re done! On with the story! And then there are those who actually invent worlds. Some are so complex and layed and nuanced that they make our own world look simple. Tolkien invented entire languages for his. Others create architectural styles, clothing, flora and fauna, cultural variations, weaponry, even cutlery. I haven’t found invented cutlery in this book, but pretty much every other detail you could wish for has been thought about. You want to know where the highest rainfall is? [1] Which are the best grain-producing regions? Where the stables are in the army camp? How the ogres count? (Seriously; in base six, if you want to know, which gives the mathematical module in my brain a frisson of pure delight.) And yes, there are languages and fantasy’s second-best invented swearword. [2] The author has it all worked out, starting right at the beginning, with the creation. And the best part of it is that all this world-building isn’t slapped on like theatrical make-up. Instead, there are little snippets here and there, where the story needs it (or lightly brushed on, to continue the make-up analogy). The result feels extraordinarily real. I love it.

Cob, the main character, a slave in the Empire’s army, is frustrating in a lot of ways. He’s seventeen, possibly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, has been messed about with mentally for years (as all potentially rebellious slaves are), and his stubbornness level is set to eleven, at least. He believes absolutely everything he’s been told by his parents and, more recently, by his Empire masters, has a touching faith in their dogmatic religion, and did I mention how stubborn he is? So every time someone tries to help him or rescue him or intervene in any way, he reacts with a certain amount of negativity, shall we say. For much of the book he’s merely a pawn in other people’s machinations, reacting to events (mostly by saying no) and constantly trying to be normal, even when it’s obvious that he really isn’t. Even his escape from slavery is very much against his will (and isn’t that a wonderful break from tradition, a slave who doesn’t want to escape?). He absolutely wants to conform, to be a good Imperial citizen. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to ache for poor Cob, caught up in events way out of his league and finding out some truly heart-breaking things about his past. And the present, come to that. Or finding himself temporarily in the midst of a real family and being astonished that the children play around.

There are a number of other characters who also have point of view episodes, sometimes quite briefly as the plot requires, and this could have been a mess, hopping from one character to another. It works very well on the whole, although there were a few times when the rapid jumps from place to place felt a bit choppy. Fortunately, all the characters have depth, even the walk-on parts. Darilan and Sarovy, who both end up chasing after Cob, are wonderfully deep and nuanced characters, and just as tragic, in their different ways. Only Lark fell a bit flat for me; although she had her moments in the early parts of the story, she became not much more than baggage for a while, and I didn’t feel I got to know her well enough to get under her skin, so to speak. But I loved her pet goblin, Rian, who stole every scene he was in (even while fast asleep), while never saying much more than ‘Meep’ and ‘Ys’ (yes). And there are some peripheral characters that I would love to see more of, like the Archmagus and the Crimson General (although from a safe distance, perhaps).

The magic is fairly straightforward. There are mages who use sigils and runes and words and hand-waviness to create their spells, so there’s a fair amount of hurling of thunderbolts and the like going on. So far, so conventional. There are portals (yay for portals!), some permanent, some created on the fly. Some mages are also mentalists, able to probe into the minds of subjects, see their memories and moderate them. Mindwashing, it’s called, and the process and its after effects are truly unsettling. Almost everyone in the army, freesoldier or slave, is subjected to it at regular intervals, to keep them content by removing distressing experiences from their minds, with odd effects, but like any such capability it also becomes a means of keeping control.

The author’s world comes fully stocked with a range of interesting lifeforms, not just humans. There are ogres and skinchangers, goblins and some really creepy beings called eiyet. Creepy oozes out all over the place, actually, and there are moments of pure horror, in the Hitchcock sense of chills up the spine, rather than the more usual sense these days of grossness and spilled entrails. There are also magically enhanced - well, things, for want of a better word, about which I will say no more . There is a certain blurring of the distinction between alive and not-alive which gave me the heeby-jeebies, frankly.

The plot... look, if I say that the book’s about a slave who escapes and is chased across several countries by a bunch of people who mean him harm because of something powerful inside him, something he’s not even aware of, well, it sounds like a million other fantasy books, doesn’t it? So let’s not worry about the plot. In reality, it’s not at all trite, and everything fits together beautifully, the characters all behave perfectly believably and it’s anything but predictable. It’s absolutely the opposite of predictable, in fact. I just never knew what was coming next, not once.

Where the book excels for me is the way it deals with the spirit world, the shadow world, dreams and not-dreams, things which are beyond human understanding (to express it in a very pedestrian way). It’s very difficult to convey these sort of airy-fairy concepts effectively, but the author does it brilliantly here. I generally have real trouble visualising these non-world (and non-rational) experiences, but here I always knew what was happening, even if I didn’t always know why. The author’s writing style is a big help, with a precision of word-use that is a joy to read.

I've found it difficult to write this review. I enjoyed this book so much, and at a much deeper level than the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy, that it’s hard to express. It's not easy to write intelligibly about an experience which wound its tendrils around me and burrowed inside my mind. It’s still in my head, buzzing round and making me think about memory, and belief, and friendship, and good and evil and (worst of all) good intentions, and people who aren’t what you think they are, and who knows what else. There are parts that are unforgettable: Cob doing his thing in the tavern; Lark getting left behind by the shadowbloods; the wolf; Darilan's dagger and bracer; some of Cob's dreams (or not-dreams, maybe); Lerien; the crows; the thing that Weshker encountered; the teardrop pendants (and who would imagine that a modest piece of jewelry would be so scary?). The characters are unforgettable too, and I cared about all of them (well, OK, maybe not Annia!). The story is complex, subtle and many-layered, and yet I never felt out of my depth, never wondered what the hell people were doing, never had to go back and look up who a character was or what a reference meant. That’s an outstanding achievement in a genre that too often mistakes cryptic for clever. And - a bonus - there are outbreaks of humour at the most unexpected times.

You’re probably getting the picture by now. I liked it, quite a lot actually. Compelling characters, a fully-realised world, an action-packed plot that zooms along at a rate of knots and never feels in the least contrived, and a wonderful ending with plenty of emotional resonance. A beautifully conceived and written book with real depth. Highly recommended. Five stars.

[1] If you really want to know this sort of thing, I recommend the author’s website, which is amazing.

[2] The best is in Glenda Larke’s ‘Stormlords’ trilogy: ‘pedeshit’. But ‘pike/piking’ is close, very close. And then there’s ‘Morgwi’s balls’. Gotta love an author who can invent great swearwords. ETA: well, who'd a thunk it, apparently 'piking' isn't an invented swearword after all. It's been around since the 18th century, and is an integral part of the Planescape D&D setting. So now we know. Still think it's a cracking word, though.

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