Posts Tagged ‘quest’

The Silk Map by Chris Willrich

July 16, 2014 1 comment

silk map

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.Chris Willrich

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.

The Barrow by Mark Smylie


The wizard, the warrior (she cross-dresses to get the part), the thief and the Rogue (sorry no barbarian this time round) go into an inn. “Drinks all round!” calls out the Rogue and so the game begins. Yes we’re in the land of RPGs, specifically Quests and, to prove the point, The Barrow by Mark Smylie (Pyr, 2014) (see the Artesia graphic novels) starts us off in full tomb-robbing mode. When the label “sword & sorcery” was being coined back in the 1960s, the general practice was to have the heroes gather, set off quietly, and build to a big set-piece at the end when mayhem, usually both violent and magical, was allowed full rein. This book rather breaks with convention by showing a team in action as they approach an underground temple. Within just a few pages, they have boldly gone below and are soon fighting for their lives as the worshippers don’t take too kindly to their temple being violated (again). While the acolytes go hand-to-hand with the intruders, the priestess gets into the business of an invocation and, as the light fades, something this way comes and it’s not going to stop with just pricking thumbs. Fortunately, the main protagonist, Stjepan, aka Black-Heart, has found what he was looking for and, together with Erim (she’s undetectably doing the man’s job of hacking away at all-comers) and Harvald, they escape with The Map! Yes, the thieves were preparing to carry away treasure, but the enigmatic Stjepan, cartographer and other things to Kings, was only interested in finding the route to the ultimate treasure. Not surprisingly, he’s on the track of the legendary sword Gladringer which was reputedly buried along with a wizard called Azharad — not to be confused with Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab from Lovecraftian Mythos.

Mark Smylie

Mark Smylie


Having now demonstrated he can write exciting set-pieces in underground locations, our attention switches to the city and something rather sad happens. By way of introduction, I should confirm the story being told is actually quite interesting. The politics of this society and the subsequent travel across the landscape of this fantasy world are done well. Indeed, the problem comes from the attention to detail in the world-building. This is a six-hundred page book — intermediate in size since one or two books are now weighing in at more than one-thousand pages. Obviously, a lot happens in a book this long, but there’s also a vast amount of infodumping going on to introduce everyone, explain where they are, the history of the places, the religious significance of different practices, and so on. If you didn’t keep having to slow down to read it all, this would no doubt be considered an excellent adventure book. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The opening section suggests it wanted to be rip-roaring, non-stop action, but once we get back above ground, it’s like the author wanted to show all us Doubting Thomases just how much effort he had invested in making up all this stuff. Shame really. If someone on the editorial staff had taken an axe to the book as submitted, there was a wonderful 400 page epic fantasy waiting to be told in crisp, elegant prose.


Instead, it gets rather boring. You can tell the author was also finding it heavy going because, from time to time, he tries to divert attention from the plodding nature of the prose by introducing some sex scenes. In a way, this book reminded me of the Gor novels by John Norman. When our professor got tired of expounding on the merits of the social Darwinism underpinning his fictional societies and their cultures, he would allow the dominant men to show their women a good time (remember Lange also wrote a more academic book — only joking — arguing that sexual fantasies, often of a BDSM variety, would help couples improve their sex lives). Well some of the sex in this book is slightly more graphic than even our good professor would have fantasised about on paper (or perhaps elsewhere for that matter).


Anyway, once back in town, Harvald assigns himself the task of decursing The Map, but things don’t go quite as planned and the physical document is destroyed. Depending on your point of view, this is not the end of matters. The Map does not go quietly up in smoke, but elects to reappear in another location — tickets to view are soon on private sale. With the security situation deteriorating, Stjepan and Erin join with Gilgwyr the brothel impresario and Leigh, the unreliable wizard, to find the Barrow where the sword is believed buried. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the team enter said barrow and discover there are difficulties to overcome — not a total surprise.


So The Barrow suffers from many of the problems common to first novels which set off down fairly well-travelled plot roads. Mark Smylie has attempted to compensate for the underlying lack of originality by adding in detail. This leaves me blaming the publisher whose editorial staff should have taken control of the book, cut out all the dead wood, and distilled the remainder of the plot down to a manageable length.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Thunderer by Felix Gilman

June 30, 2009 1 comment

I have written book blurbs. It’s a mildly diverting game to capture the essence of a book and sell it to potential customers in the shortest possible number of words. The trick is to reassure potential readers that their money will be well-spent. So every book becomes the latest novel channelling Tolkien, Enid Blyton or some other literary heavyweight. As a recent experiment, I asked a question on LinkedIn, “If The Waste Land is a below-par gardening manual and Portnoy’s Complaint is about a diner who gets a poor meal in a five star restaurant, which works of literature do you find inspiring?” It was intriguing to find that half the answers were serious recommendation of favourite books. Obviously, any descriptive reference to a work of literature is potentially true and people “trust” what they see in print.

Most recently, I observed the adjective “Dickensian” rolled out in support of Thunderer by Felix Gilman. Perhaps it’s a reaction to time spent in school when I was forced to read him as a literary giant of the Victorian Age. Coming to an author out of choice always predisposes you to think better of him or her (until the reality of the reading overcomes initial optimism). As a rebellious teen, the well of resentment rose with buckets of scorn to pour over the teacher’s choice. As a social commentator, I concede that Dickens was reassuringly preoccupied with the problems of his age. But his prose style was often overwrought and the narrative shaped to the dictates of episodic publication. Although stated simply, the plots and their characters achieve some degree of timeless universality, they are mired in the language and sentimentality of his times. I have enjoyed some of the more modern BBC television adaptations. But, as someone to read with modern sensibilities, I do not recommend him.

Coming to the Thunderer, the plot may be stated simply. A man on a quest to find the voice of his god comes to a great city and, after some difficulties, manages to save the city from a great danger and, incidentally, stays hopeful that he will ultimately find what he is looking for. This takes some 527 pages. Let’s clear the decks for action. I am not against long books. All I ask is that the length is used constructively for driving the narrative forward. Thus, if a work is full of incident, I am prepared to accept a reasonable amount of background information to offer colour and context for these excitements. But this book is full of the worst kind of padding. We have a multiple point-of-view narrative structure with sequential chunks of text devoted to each major character. This is standard and the usual convention is that time starts to run at the first page and then continues sequentially or with some overlap until the last page when some or all of the characters have met and served their purpose as fixed by the author. In Aristotelian terms, this gives us unity of time and place as the author moves towards a logical (and, sometimes, moral) conclusion.

In this case, the primary protagonist is called Arjun and the first chapter enjoys unity of time as key players react to the arrival of a magical bird over the city where all the significant action occurs. Except the second chapter is largely Arjun’s backstory, simply dropped into the middle of the narrative as a lump of exposition. All of this content could have been slowly drawn out of Arjun as he meets different people in the city and explains why he has come. But this sets an unfortunate trend. Whenever we meet someone new or visit another part of the city, we get these information dumps. In the “good old days”, we praised most world builders, making exceptions for the obsessives like Tolkien whose interminable ramblings have been immortalised in uncountable numbers of posthumous books capturing his notes. But this modern drive to satisfy the apparent desire of readers to get “value for money” is leading to grossly overwritten texts. It is a reversion, but of the wrong type. The reason why Dickens put in so much background is because he had a word target to meet for each episode. So rather than rushing the plot to its conclusion (killing Little Nell had to be delayed as long as possible), he dallied in the descriptions and so maintained his income stream over the maximum possible number of instalments. The bean counters in charge of modern publishing houses also want the maximum number of words for the buck, regardless of the quality of those words.

The result is a book that could have been interesting if an editor had hacked away the unnecessary text. It is a work of metaphors. The city is mutable, shifting and changing its nature through space and time. At any one location, one might meet people out of time or from the future. It all depends on how you look. In this unmappable city lurk supernatural beings and those who would exploit or benefit from their power. Jack becomes a symbol of anarchic freedom. Arlandes becomes a symbol of raw oppression invested with tragic impotence. Then there is Holbach whose intellectualism marginalises his access to power and Shay whose various machinations destabilise the existing order of things. Among all these cyphers walks Arjun who vaguely follows the dictates of his quest until he is diverted by the appearance of a pestilent threat to the city. Frankly, I didn’t care very much what happened. The threat uncoils slowly and without much sense of menace. It kills people in increasing numbers, but that is it. It is perfunctory, a mere plot device because there must be something for Arjun to confront as a delaying tactic in the pursuit of his grail. The resolution is neither victory nor defeat. It is an ending in the sense that a cul-de-sac is an ending and so brings us to the end of this first instalment of journey in what will turn out to be a trilogy or more. Dickens would have approved of this device as a means of selling more books.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Half-Made World
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City.

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