Monday, 9 September 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Living Sword' by Pemry Janes

This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a human who was found as a baby in a boat with his dead parents, and raised by a non-human island-based society called the San. Ah, the orphan of unknown heritage story, that's always a good one, if a little over-used. The opening chapters, where we see Eurik living amongst the very alien San, are terrific. I'm a big fan of non-human societies, and this one has been very well thought out. But then, sadly, Eurik is given the living sword of the title, the only possession found on the boat, and told he has to leave the island to find out what happened to his parents, and where they came from. This means living amongst humans for the first time, a race (or species, maybe?) he's previously only read about in books.

The humans, frankly, are less interesting, because their way of life is very similar to that of millions of other fantasy human societies. It’s the differences, the idiosyncrasies of this world that make it interesting. Fortunately, the author doesn't belabour the idea that the human world is very new to Eurik. He's well read, so he manages to recognise many ordinary items (bread, for instance) from book descriptions. It would be tedious if every common item he saw was described through his eyes as something novel and strange. Still, he does seem to accept things very quickly, without too many ‘whoa! whatever’s that’ outbreaks.

There’s some nice world-building going on here, with various different races and languages and customs which have clearly been well developed. The author doesn’t infodump all this background, it’s simply there, and the reader just has to keep up with the various references to the unknown. Sometimes, there’s an explanation later or the meaning becomes clear, but there were a few times when just a little extra detail would have made it easier to follow and increased the richness of the world. For instance, there are throwaway lines about the San being ‘tree-people’ and ‘genderless’. Hold it right there, that sounds interesting, tell me more. But no, the story moves swiftly on.

I very much liked the two forms of magic being used, or rather one form of magic and one which is merely a different philosophy (I liked Eurik’s insistance that the amazing things he can do, purely through his mind, is not magic). The San method of steering a boat is particularly clever, and it’s amazing just how much can be achieved by shifting earth about. It’s clear the author has worked things out very carefully, and there are rules and limits and costs involved. And for those who like wizardy-type battles, there are some absolute crackers in here.

The characters fell a little flat, for me. Eurik, in particular, is a very unemotional bloke, and considering all that happens to him and the fact that he’s tossed out of the world he’s known from babyhood and into a very different world, he seems almost implausibly stoical. Some of his actions, too, are just too relaxed, such as when he decides to talk to the fighting San by signing up for the contest and walking out into the arena. I can’t believe this was the only way he could get to see the San. Admittedly, it led to a great scene, but it seemed to me that Eurik was far too calm about it. I would have liked to see a little more reaction from him at times. He gets involved in some truly terrifying incidents along the way, so a little bit of fear at the time and angst afterwards would make him more human. Or maybe that’s the point, that he’s been so well taught by the San that he has lost some of his humanity. In which case, that was a bit too subtly done, since it’s only just occurred to me. Doh.

Of the other characters, the only one that most stands out in my mind is Broken-Fang. Gotta love a captured female who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. There are some interesting side characters along the way too, and I have to give an honourable mention to one of the most important characters, the living sword himself. He (can a sword have a gender? I certainly thought of it as male) has a very distinct and entertaining personality all his own, although his inexplicable lack of knowledge until the plot requires it veers dangerously close to deus ex machina. There are some villains, but they simply appear out of nowhere and their motives seem a bit suspect.

The plot is rather episodic, with spells of furious magic-fuelled battles interspersed with ambling through the scenery or finding inns and such like. The book has a somewhat unfinished air, and seems quite disjointed. For instance, a section starts off: “They entered Campan together, passing the watchtower they'd seen from afar.” There’s virtually no description of Campan itself (it’s a town, as we find out a few lines later, but when I first saw the name, it could be almost anything - a country, a swamp, a fort, a castle...), and no warning beforehand that they were heading that way. This is very jarring (I actually searched to find out if I’d missed an earlier reference). A line or two linking the previous section to the arrival at Campan would help the book flow better. There are a number of places where a few extra lines of description would help to bridge these gaps. The writing is fairly untidy, with numerous punctuation errors, misplaced words and a couple of wrongly used words (shoulders instead of soldiers, feint instead of faint). This didn’t bother me unduly (I’m more of a grammar pedant), but some might find it distracting.

This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed it a great deal, especially everything to do with the San and their ‘philosophical’ form of magic. The world-building was good, and the plot was full of drama. On the other hand, the choppiness of the writing, the sloppy editing and the lack of background information in places, often jarred me out of immersion. Still, I was never tempted to stop reading and the action moments were very good, even if sometimes events seemed a bit contrived. Three stars.

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