The Silk Map by Chris Willrich
The Silk Map by Chris Willrich (Pyr, 2014) offers a story of two heroes, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, plus Snow Pine and a number of others who, for various reasons, get sucked into the quest for the Iron Moths and their (magical) silk. Yes we’re into that most dangerous of fantasy tropes: the quest! In the more innocent days of the last century, sword-wielding barbarians, usually accompanied by a thief and a wizard, set off across an alien landscape to find treasure. On the way, they would battle magical thingummies and bed a few (usually voluptuous) women in a style that would appeal to the boy hero lurking inside every (adult male) reader. They were simple, linear narratives, good for nothing but to get from point A to point B having killed as many thingamabobs and bedded as many women as possible. Then along came a more humorous approach which treated the whole idea of sword and sorcery as a joke and decided to have as much fun as possible killing and having sex (although not necessarily in that order). All of which brings us to the modern day when authors look back in despair at the decades of inventiveness that have gone before them. These writers therefore rise to the challenge of differentiating themselves from the past by producing ever more complicated fantasy worlds for their heroes to travel across and fight things (sex is optional or mandatory with as many as fifty different shades of activity described).
Chris Willrich seems to have been primarily interested in Chinese mythology. One of the most famous gods of the Middle Kingdom is Monkey aka Sun-Wukong. He first surfaces in the sixteenth century. Journey To The West (Xiyou Ji) by Wu Cheng’en finds a rock on the Mountain of Fruit and Flowers soaking up the chi. It becomes pregnant and gives birth to the Monkey which immediately jumps off to have fun. But because he challenges Heaven, Buddha pins him on the ground by placing a mountain on top of him. To get anything out of this book, it’s as well to know other features of Chinese mythology (even though this version of Monkey is, for no terribly obvious reason, female), plus some of the One-Thousand-and-One Arabian Nights stories (including the inner secrets of flying carpets), plus some of the fairy story mythology surrounding Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, and others. When it comes to the art of conflation, this one’s a doozy all wrapped up in a quest not unlike the good old days of sword and sorcery, and Dungeons and Dragons.
Now I don’t mind this type of book if it’s done with wit and style. Even though it may be reinventing the wheel, the prose can give life and direction to plausible characters as they tramp (or fly) across the landscape to realise their destinies. In theory, this particular plot has a good staring point. At the end of the first book, our heroes had to hide their child away in a pocket dimension. Now they have to get into that dimension to recover what has been lost. Monkey offers them a deal. If they find the Iron Moths, enlightenment on the subject of dimensions will follow. So off they go, acquiring travelling companions who may be benign, and encountering the daughters of the Khan, and the inevitable group who sees it as their task in life to defend the Iron Moths against interlopers.
Unfortunately, this book is written in turgid prose and has characters that fail to come over as even remotely plausible. Our parents who have so carefully sequestered their son, Innocent (ha, there’s a name guaranteed to spell trouble) out of danger seem somehow calm. Not in a fatalistic way, you understand. At times their actions seem rather divorced from the emotional trauma they should be feeling. Indeed, I was occasionally baffled by their behaviour as a couple. Perhaps I’m missing some key information from the first in the series, but this pair don’t really seem to be coherent people at all. It’s the same with the other mother who has also placed her daughter with Innocent in this alternate dimension (trusting the name is never enough). Snow Pine is also remarkably enigmatic, reactive rather than proactive for most of the time until she’s let loose on the demons at the end — then she can be proactive in a deadly kind of way. It’s just three people going with the flow and ending up in more or less the right place at the end for the big battle and the not very unfavorable ending. So when you put all this together, I regret to say this book is barely readable. In the best tradition of the phrase, I didn’t give a damn about any of the people and thought the situations tiresomely clichéd. It’s far too long and, at times, I think the author lost track of what his characters were supposed to be feeling or doing. It gets confusing, to say the least. So although the Silk Map is not quite the worst book of the year so far, it’s certainly in the bottom five in terms of readability and I seriously warn people against trying it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.