Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins
It is always interesting to read two episodes in a series back-to-back, seeing a world created over some years suddenly reduced to a few days of reading. So here we are following Maledicte with Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins. In this instance, it is hard to say whether this was a good strategy, but four things are obvious. The info-dumping in the first section of this episode is really annoying. Yes, new readers who have not had the sense to read Maledicte before picking up this volume do need to be given a chance to understand who everyone is and some of what has gone on before, but this is really clunky. A simple one or two page summary before we start is always better. Second, the quality of the language has dropped from a high fantasy, somewhat florid style, to something more prosaic. This is not a criticism. It simply reflects a decision to abandon some of the pretension and get on with the story. Third, we have a lot more interior monologue and, frankly, it is not that constructive. As a literary device, it should illuminate our understanding of characters and help move the plot forward. It would have been very useful to have had more of these insights during Maledicte. But, in this volume, many of the scenes in which it occurs are more everyday than plot drivers. Finally, the big change is that Maledicte is gone, but not forgotten, and Janus is the focus of interest. I will come back to this later.
So, let’s get back to the debate about pronouns I began in the last review. We have the continuing gender dysphoria over Maledicte and now, the polar opposite. This author is obviously running with gender issues and has a transvestite male in a prominent role. This is a far more understanding and sexually liberal culture than the one we have now. It seems to accept fairly overt displays of homosexuality so long as it is kept reasonably discreet and, without so much as turning a hair, a man in woman’s clothing can put on a public display of technology without exciting a lynching. More importantly, there’s something really weird going on in the writing. He is called Delight when en femme, i.e. he changes his name, but is always referred to using masculine pronouns. He does this, his dress, saw him in women’s clothing, etc. This is an amazing double standard. If Miranda is always “he” when dressed as Maledicte, why does the same convention not apply to Delight? Perhaps it is that Miranda was never suspected of being female in public and Delight makes no secret of his sex. If so, this strikes me as a very unsubtle form of discrimination.
I had two major concerns about Maledicte: that it lacked a political context for the action, and there was a real failure to explain the relationship between gods and mortals — indeed, I am still less than convinced that a god could be balked without immediate consequences. Kings and Assassins makes good progress in remedying the first and gets even more frustrating on the second. Although the Luddite theme is slightly clichéd, it does make a convenient peg on which to hang the fifth columnists trying to destabilise the kingdom. Antimachine rallies are a good excuse for potentially violent disorder and the destruction of the kingdom’s industrial potential. But the presence of Ivor Sophia Grigorian to mastermind the overthrow of the kingdom gives the book a much better balance. We can, from the outset, see the plots and counterplots clearly. This is a major improvement. But the gods/mortal theme is complicated by the reappearance of a second god. As if it was not difficult enough to understand the working of Black-Winged Ani, now we have to contend with another diffuse presence in Haith — except, like Ani, he seems to be able to dole out death on demand.
Psyke — a slightly obvious name substituting a k for ch, creating historical credibility and giving a nod to psychic abilities — is possessed by Haith and counterbalances the assassin. She is the reason why we have a revision of the policy on interior monologuing/dialoguing. Courtesy of the god uplink, she can talk to the dead, i.e. we need to be inside her head to hear the conversations. Once the dam breaks, we get to see inside many characters. Except there are very few helpful revelations on the god front. When you know from the outset that the humans are going to have to negotiate with or “fight” the gods, they should be researching urgently and endlessly trying to think up the best strategies. But it is all very low key. This was the real problem with Janus in the first book. He ended up doing all the right things to “cage” Ani, but we still don’t really know how he knew what to do. It was all just a little too convenient.
Having remedied the problems from the first by having a real set of political issues to work through, Lane Robins is still failing to explain the history or practicalities of all this god stuff. If you are going to create a world in which real supernatural beings can directly affect the humans, you need more background and explanation than is on offer here. It should be Shakespearean, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. . .” with them unstoppably pulling off everyone’s wings. We do get an answer at the eleventh hour and it is not unsatisfying, but it is all just too convenient (again). The structure of the narrative should be set up as a mystery — how to control or deflect an angry god — but it is weak. What should be building in parallel to the unfolding political crisis suddenly emerges, almost unbidden, and with Janus beaten, he is rescued.
This is not to say Kings and Assassins is a bad book. Once it gets into its stride, it has a more economical approach to the plotting and has a good level of inventiveness on the political front. Indeed, we would have been better if there were no gods at all. As it is, we are left with significant numbers of humans dead and the city in ruins without any understanding of how it was all done. Truth be told, I don’t think Janus as interesting as Maledicte. She was more in control of her own destiny. You could feel her/him warring with Ani. This poor man seems only to be beaten from pillar to post. He does his best to plan, but he tends to be reactive and is often outmatched. He is not really the hero which, perhaps, is what should be happening. Beating gods is a challenge — too much for one person — and needs to be a team effort. Overall, this book is merely OK.