Monday, 25 May 2015

A Betrayal of Memory - my spoiler-free review of "Veil of the Deserters" by Jeff Salyards

It was something a surprise to discover that two years elapsed between the publishing of Scourge of the Betrayer in 2012 and this, its sequel in 2014.  The surprise is because the action between the two books is entirely continuous.   Our first person hero Arkomondos - scribe and occasional crossbowman - steps straight from the last page of Scourge onto the first page of Betrayer with barely a pause for breath still less a change of clothes.

At this point I should warn readers that, while I will let slip no spoilers for book two, the plot builds so seamlessly on the conclusion of book one that spoilers for book one are unavoidable.  So if you have hopes of an unsullied experience of Scourge of the Betrayers you should move on now, perhaps after briefly admiring the cover of Veil of the Deserters.

The charm of both Scourge and Veil is that we ride in the unreliable and ill-informed head of Arkamondos.  The twisted strands of plot unknot themselves in stops and starts between and within the bloody battles and hard fought skirmishes. I was glad that I only skim read the blurb for it gives a little more away than Arki could have known and there is a pleasure in seeing the conspiracies revealed piecemeal and in "real time" like an Arabian dancer losing one veil then another.

Veil takes the story of Braylar Killcoin and his disperate desparate band forward. It also addresses some of the concerns that spoilt the enjoyment of others (if not me). After reading and loving book one, out of curiosity I took a look at some of the less favourable reviews of Scourge.  I recognised the book they described as the one I had read, but I thought they were viewing it from a different and less flattering angle.

One reviewer was dissatisfied with the revelation of the great secret that was carried in the wagon throughout book one.  It seemed to them a hollow prize and a weak plot point unworthy of the sacrifices that were made for it.  But the thing to remember is that the reader only knows what Arki was told and Arki is the unreliable and far from trusted supernumerary in a close knit band of cut-throats.  Who would have told him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? There is a far greater and credible part to be played by the secret in the chest - one that will test Arki's particular talents.

Another reviewer was unhappy with the amount of time devoted to the long trudge across the grasslands with only Arki and Braylar and dead men's memories to keep each other company.  Certainly, it took me a fair while to unsort the diverse band of Braylar's company, separating the officers and the NCOs and I was slightly hampered by the long period in the first book where all of them bar Braylar disappeared from view.  However,  having straightened it out in my head the second book picks up with the band altogether and rattles pleasingly along.  The mental image of each coarse mouthed Syldoon and their particular curses and foibles are firmly anchored in my imagination.

There are many themes in Salyards' book.  One of them perhaps is that it is memories (not manners) that maketh a man.  We learnt in book one how Bloodsounder curses its wielder with the memories of each victim it slays.  A curse which cripples Braylar unless a memory witch of some description can  rummage in his head and draw out the poison of a dead man's memories.  I saw a similar motif in the "Last Werewolf" by Glen Duncan where Jake Marlowe the eponymous anti-hero consumes the memories as well as the bodies of his victims.  However, the side effects do not afflict him with the same disorientation that Braylar succumbs to.

The curse of Bloodsounder and the memory witches are amongst the most distinctive features of Salyards' carefully built world.  There are some sharp truths in there. We are all of us really little more than the sum of our memories and the ways they have shaped our personalities.  I imagine the tragedy of diseases like Alzheimer's is that they rob us invisibly of those we love, leaving only living monuments to the people they once were.  It is understandable then the horror and revulsion with which those gifted with memory magic are held by an unenlightened populace.  A horror which makes finding an un-lynched memory witch something of a difficult feat.

Unless that is one is in the Syldoon Empire where Memoridons serve an imperial purpose, including Braylar's sister Soffjian, a pair who move beyond mere sibling rivalry and into a deep mutual loathing.  It is a loathing founded in their childhood and perpetuated by the different paths they have taken since, blunt warrior and untrustworthy memory witch. 

Salyards' magic system is built around memory magic and indeed the control of all perception through which our senses filter and record the world around us.  It is a clever premise which drives the story at every level.

There is again Salyard's epic descriptions of minor battles.  Thinking back I could count five distinct battles rendered in amour crashing side splitting detail.  As someone who can barely tell a vambrace from a gambeson and has only a passing understanding of an aventail, the blur of technical detail was a pleasantly immersive experience.  It was like sitting in a French village soaking up the atmosphere while catching with certainty only one word in two.  Salyards does not explain or lecture, he shows.  What comes through the robust knowledge is the flavour of real battle, the feeling that you are riding alongside the Syldoon as they confront another desperate challenge.

They are a ruthless band, though another theme that the book toys with is the consequences of morals.  In Joe Abercrombie's book Half the World Father Yarvi tells Brand "A man who gives all his thought to doing good but no thought to the consequences... that is a dangerous man. "  Arki too learns that the moral high ground is a dangerous place where the quality of mercy is not so much strained as doomed to back fire.  

The key feature of the story is the recall of Braylar's band to a gathering of the Syldoon in the city at the heart of their empire.  Braylar's unfinished business with a certain priest keeps him from the journey home until well over half way through the book.  Nonetheless, there is time and space for a richly painted culture of an oppressive regime built for war and ill equipped to survive a weak piping time of peace unless grim work can be found for idle hands.

The dialogue remains a strength for me in the book. Personality and plot are revealed through the entertaining interactions between characters.  Salyards imbues them with individuality, personality and growth which is just as well, for the story is growing larger in scope and scale as the plot unfolds.  The characters must rise as well to meet it and, in the final instalment, I would not be surprised if the Gods themselves took to the stage which Salyards has so expertly set.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

"The Stable Vices Affair" A review of G.W.Renshaw's debut novel

The author G.W.Renshaw wrote recently on facebook

"I have now narrowed down the reader demographic of my first novel.
It officially appeals to women between the ages of 12 and 74."

Fortunately he subsequently admitted " ...several men have already read and enjoyed it"  so, presumably somewhat unofficially, it is o.k. for me to have found the book both appealing and enjoyable.

The story weaves two threads together in a compact 250 page volume.  The opening scene is of a radio interview with our heroine Veronica Irene Chandler which does not go entirely as she had hoped.  The back story thread leads us up to the point at which she became the eighteen year old Calgary Private Investigator whose career choices and qualifications are robustly challenged on air.  The forward story thread carries on with her acquiring and pursuing her first two cases.

Before this, the short prologue had ended with the enigmatic line  "Personally, I blame most of my problems on that damned dwarf.  And the aliens, of course."

I spent the first quarter of the book waiting for the aliens to turn up in their silvery spacecraft and the next half thinking "oh - the aliens are in her head, it's just a metaphor."

The back story shows us an engaging string of episodes in our heroine's life from early childhood to graduation as a qualified PI.  Those who read my reviews, or even my own books, will know I have a fondness for kick-ass heroines, and Veronica Irene Chandler is certainly one of those.  There is the luxury of being an only child to caring but broadly sensible parents.  But even a supportive home is no protection from the cardinal high school sin of being different, of wanting something out of the ordinary.

But despite that, Veronica forms firm friendships and as a reader I found myself cheering her on through each trial and tribulation and some of them are quite traumatic.  Nonetheless the author's narration is spare and factual -  showing action and reaction both credible and authentic.  It is in reading the back matter of a book that you discover things about an author which make you go "oh... so that's why..."  For example the fact that G.W.Renshaw is a martial artist explains the believable manoeuvers by which Veronica defies physical disadvantages to punch significantly above her weight.          

Some of Veronica's friendships are with people of her own age but of the male persuasion and, in that respect things develop as these things tend to do on her journey through adolescence into adulthood. When queried about whether there were naughty bits in his book, the author replied

"As far as naughty bits are concerned, that depends on your definition. There are occasional sex scenes, but they concentrate on the participant's thoughts and feelings rather than the mechanics. There are also references to kink, but it's a plot point rather than titillation."

This is a pretty fair assessment.  There are several references to sex, more so than I have seen in many of my recent reads.  But the references are about its anticipation and its aftermath and Renshaw manages to conjure a convincing image of a young woman with perhaps slightly more than her fair share of adolescent urges but without ever descending to prurient detail. 

The heroine also has a love of research and this is perhaps where the author's interests manage to merge fairly seamlessly with his character's.  There is a love of cooking, there are details of Canadian police procedure and Columbian culture, all serving to flesh out the story with colours drawn from the palette of the author's own experiences.  There is no harm in that.  I assume it was Elizabeth Bear's own detailed knowledge of horse husbandry which enhanced my reading of Karen Memory.  I dare say that a profound knowledge of designer shopping made 50 Shades of Grey a more credible read to those who delved into its reportedly shallow depths.  As to the goings on in Christian Grey's Red Room, well I can make no judgement as to how true to life or well researched they were, but can only say that the stable vices briefly glimpsed in G.W.Renshaw's work would turn even E.L.James' hero a paler shade of grey.  Suffice to say there are some scenes that are not for Public Eyes.

The forward story thread follows Veronica's investigations into a pair of people caught up in some quite atypical behaviours, inexplicable even to one used to the betrayals and injuries that one human can inflict on another.  There is resolution of a kind for all the victims in this story.  However, the need to weave the back and the forward story together in a relatively short volume means that the forward story falls short of the absolute resolution that a purist might have hankered after.  Indeed, at one point I was worried as to how far the author was going to leave me hanging by my fingernails on a fearful cliff-hanger of an ending.

In the absence of the convenience of an amazon kindle version I had resorted to buying the book in a physical paperback.  Watching me read it over a short week, my wife was struck by the cover and I would admit that this is arguably the book's weakest point.  While it definitely shows the key elements of the story even down to Ms Chandler's oft mentioned extendable baton (no sniggering at the back there) they are somewhat jumbled with the horse floating in the air. 

Others may feel the same, but I would only say do not judge a book by its cover, or at least not this one, because it is better than that.

The book declares, in its subtitle, that this is Book One of the Chandler Affairs. It is inevitably an introduction to the heroine and her snow clad milieu of Calgary.  An entertaining and well written read in its own right, but also something of a showcase for what will follow with characters from all ends of the good-bad spectrum surely set to reappear.

Does it work? Yes - it passes the simple tests
I believe in the characters (even the oddest of them)
I care about what happens to them and
I want to see how the story pans out.

Along the way it is well written with some sharply observed dialogue and a credible seasoning of detail to flesh out (but not pad out) the narrative.