If, in an idle moment, you reach for the dictionary— sometimes the need to read something, anything, requires desperate measures — your eye might fall on Rubenesque, a word used to describe the full-bodied women most often painted by Peter Paul (but not Mary) Rubens. It’s an interesting insight into early cultures to see portraiture in service to the need to prove wealth. Most paintings of this era are full of the icons signifying wealth from the furnishing to the women who, at that time, were chattels owned by their husbands. The reason for their lack of clothes was to show the world the men could consistently afford to put enough food on the tables to produce this level of fat. While the ordinary citizens scrimped and saved, struggling to amount to more than a bag of bones, the rich could boastfully feast themselves into obesity.
Reading Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie forcefully reminded me of this word. As I have been living in a hermetically sealed container over the last decade, I had missed the emergence of this phenom called Abercrombie. His first three works came and went into the hands of the modern first dealers who, as they are wont to say, have made a killing. My life went on untroubled. Yet, in some distant nagging way, my instincts told me I was missing something. I vaguely quested. I am missing something? I asked. And, in that, with-a-slight-shrug-of–the–shoulders way, there were a chorus of mutters listing all the things that I might have missed. When the second person diffidently asked whether I had tried Abercrombie, I knew I was on to something big. Indeed, when I tried to pick up the book, muscles in the wrists and arms trembled with the effort. In the end, I propped it on my desk and used a small team of elephants to pull open the covers (actually, that would be better as “a team of small elephants” — realism is everything in reviewing).
As with Rubens’ women, so this is a sprawling book that gives us a lot more information than is good for us about a sister’s campaign for vengeance. The local up-and-coming warlord has done in her brother, so he and his minions must pay. With treasure easily to hand, she gathers together a team of useful bodies and sets off on her quest. More than 600 pages later, we have a happy conclusion. Happy in the sense we don’t have to read any more.
This is the ultimate slow-motion train wreck. You can find the inevitability of the crash bizarrely fascinating as the body-count inexorably mounts, but that does not make it entertainment. It might have been an interesting experiment when Sam Peckinpah filmed death in slow motion. The Wild Bunch is considered a classic. But, as a cinematic and television device, slow motion has been done to death. So it is, I fear, that Abercrombie has done the same for the novelisation of the revenge trope. Told economically, revenge shows the best and the worst of human nature at war. Those of us who have been victimised can try to strike back. If we succeed, it often leaves us dissatisfied. If we fail, we can deceitfully take some moral credit in having failed to carry through.
I suppose I might be feeling better disposed to the book if I found the hard core of the primary characters even remotely sympathetic. But everyone in this world goes through the kill-or-be-killed school of life and emerges without practical scruples. The more intelligent can dispassionately wonder whether they should give compassion a try. When one shows mercy, it does not work out well. Even a potentially “innocent” person whose intellect is shackled by an obsession with numbers, kills without compunction. The rest are variously a torturer, a master poisoner and his assistant, a Northern mercenary and a former leader of mercenaries who has embraced the demon drink rather than building on memories of his former glories. And Murcatto, the leader of this happy bunch, has never been in the slightest worried by collateral damage in civilian deaths — she’s not unhappy with her nickname of Butcher. In her defence, she’s a traumatised girl inducted into military service through force of circumstances with her brother, Benna, who proved the less honourable sibling. He was cowardly and monomaniacal in the pursuit of power and wealth, the two hallmarks of success in this mediaeval world, and dragged his sister along with him, exploiting her strategic talents. Had they been less driven, they would not have been seen as a threat and so marked for death. Having survived, she becomes even more cold-bloodedly obsessed with the elimination of those responsible.
And, of course, as her survival and quest for revenge becomes known, the task of killing the killers becomes that much more difficult. In the best fight-fire-with-fire tradition, the original killers send out lesser killers to kill the would-be killers, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum as feuds are created and renewed. There are moments as the plot unwinds when conscience rears its head, but what is that but a excuse for inaction when action is required for survival. What price loyalty in all this? Well, for those who are useful but burdened with principles, the price is always higher. And then, of course, there’s the wider context. As a previous leader of a key force of mercenaries, she can still be a political player. Indeed, the fact she has survived can become a rallying cry to previous employers and enemies alike.
A prison is only the walls inside your own head. Society can feel itself trapped in a never-ending cycle of wars. As a context, think of the Hanseatic League trying to operate an economic system in a political framework driven by the wars between local city and regional European states. Mutual survival depends on achieving a balance between trade and power. To pay the troops, states need money. Without trade, there is no money. So states seek to control trade routes and the merchants try to buy their freedom. And from outside, an Ottoman Empire might be interested in stabilising or destabilising the warring parties.
We have the benefit of hindsight and can see that, over time, there were progressive reforms and the quality of life improved for all. But, at the time, the possibility of change seemed unrealistic — too far in the future to influence events affecting immediate survival. If there is hope, it must perforce be rooted in the hypothetical. Societies cannot escape their intellectual prisons until enough of the people believe escape is possible. And, even then, what are people escaping to? The fact there may be a paradigm shift simply replaces the old with a new construct. Looking around the world today, we still have the same balancing between trade and political power. It may appear more civilised but, at its heart, it’s just as ruthless as ever.
So here’s a sad shake of the head to the two who vaguely thought I might be missing Abercrombie in my life. This book is a litany of depressing cruelty and death. Whatever is triggering this undefinable angst in my own life, it’s not going to be resolved by overblown fantasy like this. I prefer more escapist fiction.
We wanted to see more of the same. We really did. But, as it turned out, there was a different path for them to follow.
The morning after the night before, as it were.
The results are just as good, but different.
Well, even in difference, there can be common themes.
I take the central concern of this second of a trilogy (Moshui: The Books of Stone and Water) to be captured in the elegant thought that,
“A city defended once can be defended again. Its reputation will speak through its stones; it has a memory of resistance, walls that say no, gates that refuse to yield.
A city that has fallen once will fall again. That is. . .inherent. Shame sinks to its foundations, weakness and loss and surrender lie like characters to be read in the very dust of its streets.”
We all struggle against the tendency of the world to label and, by that label, to define us. So, a city can be stereotyped by one loss to be a loser in all future conflicts. Passive people find such limitations comfortable. They never have to rise above the expectations of those who label them. But, for those more active personalities who have already set the bar high, it is easy to fail. So, where is the path to redemption?
Take a young Emperor as an example. He has fled across China and then across the sea to a craven last hiding place in the mountains of an island. This effectively demolishes all expectations of leadership. Indeed, his concubine may have risen to become an unexpected power behind what is left of the throne. Yet how can a girl who has grown up on a fishing boat expect to command loyalty and lead? Then there are the two generals who have come to radically different fortunes. One has been responsible for managing the retreat. The other is determined to confirm the legitimacy of his claim to the throne by eliminating the Emperor and all his family who might be a rallying point for future rebellion. It was all poised to reach the obvious conclusion with both generals conspiring to kill the Emperor. . .
. . and then everything was turned on its head by the release of the dragon.
What a magnificent beast, just as powerful underwater as in the air, commanding the elements with dramatic effect. It should be so easy for such a dominant creature, once free, to kill without limit.
Yet who or what is ever truly free? An animal, once chained, is forever enslaved! A city once defeated. . .
In Chinese philosophy, we have the notion of interdependence defined as yin and yang. Everything is opposites in a complementary relationship of balance. Think of the world as a meta-context. It begins as emptiness and then, as forces come into existence, there will be an ordering until the new environment is as calm as the previous emptiness. In a magic realm, a dragon would have to be balanced by a deity. Except, a dragon can emerge into the real world, so the deity must find human agents who can preserve the balance in both contexts. In the human realm, everything also has its own paired cycles. Generals will rise and fall in their fortunes. Even Emperors will find individuals who will balance and complete then.
So, in this second book, the cycle must turn again. The Emperor must come down from the mountain and lead again. Perhaps the courtesan’s path leads back to the boat she grew up on as her relationship with the Emperor may be in decline. Perhaps the generals will find the pursuer becomes the pursued.
So it is that the tone is different because we deal with the consequences of the first book, but it is the same because the equal and opposite qualities are complete in themselves.
This is a hugely enjoyable second outing, full of sharply economical writing and cleverly constructed character development. In tone, it starts off relatively subdued, but ends with muted triumph as character arcs, having diverged, converge to complete circles. Everything is now nicely poised for the final volume, Hidden Cities. Involuntarily, characters have been trapped or cajoled into living up to their labels. Now we have to see whether the Emperor really does have the intellect and emotional maturity to do more than lead from the front in a fight. Can he become the power in the land. While above him flies the dragon with the power to summon a typhoon to wash all life from the Emperor’s land. It is, as it should be, all left nicely balanced.
It’s perhaps appropriate as we come around to the end of the one-hundred year moratorium on the publication of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ autobiography to pick up a modern exploration of the relationships between the classes, races and religions in a new United States. Not that I am drawing any direct comparison with the various adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, of course. Julian Comstock is a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, rather than one supposedly rooted in the real world of the Deep South. But in tone there’s a certain thematic overlap as Julian does what he thinks is right even though most around him think he is wrong (for one reason or another) and Robert Charles Wilson is also interested in social commentary, albeit not quite in the same vein as in Clemens’ published work. Whether all the more private thoughts about to be revealed in the unexpurgated version of Clemens’ autobiography are more closely akin to Wilson espoused by remains to be seen.
Anyway, here we are back in the territory first carved out in classics like Earth Abides by George R Stewart where a global epidemic reduced the population somewhat, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, Jr. with a nuclear war. Lists are always boring so I will add only a two more relevant sources: The Cloud Walker by Edmund Cooper has the remnants of humanity dominated by the Luddite Church and the alternative history books like Pavane by Keith Roberts where the role of the church in managing access to knowledge is discussed.
For the purposes of Julian Comstock, we have the collapse of civilisation following the end of readily available oil. In a remarkably short span of years, wars are fought and epidemics rage as the infrastructure providing clean drinking water and sanitation disappears. When the dust settles, we have a relatively small world population, but one still intent on fighting wars. The rump of American society is dominated by the capitalists, a political elite and the religious right. A new form of feudalism has emerged with the majority indentured or otherwise committed to the service of the “aristos” — a class which includes the liberal left with more philosophical interests.
I confess to be less than impressed by the notion that what was left of middle Europe would be inclined or capable of maintaining an active military campaign in the border area of the US and Canada. My credulity is even further stretched by the idea that the Chinese might be selling advanced weaponry to the Europeans. But, if we are to go through a kind of civil war re-enactment scenario (not quite in the same mould as Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), then this is as good a way of doing it as any. Indeed, when you actually list all the plot elements, none of them are particularly original and the whole is a more readable type of fiction than that written by Mack Reynolds who was playing around with left-wing economic themes thirty and forty years ago. It’s all rather worthy, told in a somewhat pedestrian style, with a rather predictable plot. I limped through to the end and was relieved to see the last page.
As an added note, Julian Comstock placed second in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award 2010 for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novel.