Two mini reviews of science fiction and fantasy novels by Canadian writers, of Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants, and Nicholas Eames’ Bloody Rose.
I enjoyed this a LOT. Partly it was the plot: gigantic metallic pieces of what appears to be a body are found buried in remote, and less remote, locations on Earth. They appear to be waking themselves up, but how, and why now? What has humanity done that triggers their re-emergence, and what will humanity do with them now that they’re finding them? The way the story is tolds, and unfolds, is through chapters – file notes from interviews and personal journals – by which means the characters reveal themselves in dialogue or monologue. Rose Freeman falls into the first giant metal body part – a hand – in the woods when she is eleven, and leads the research on it when she is a leading scientist in her field. Kara is a US forces helicopter pilot and a very difficult person to get on with. Vincent is a linguist who decodes the carvings. And so on. But the dominant character is unnamed, definitely a person rather than the computer programme he sounds like, since Rose, Kara and Vincent all meet him. He is the Man in Bold Type, and holds the narrative together, with science, politics, devious Intelligence machinations and extraordinary resources to further his goals of getting the body parts together again. but to what end?
This is a cracking good read, and its two sequels in The Themis Files are now out too, Waking Gods and Only Human.
This is actually the second novel in the Heartwyld series, the first being Kings of the Wyld, but my daughter assured me that she became a fan of the series by beginning at book 2, so I could go that route too. I believe her, but I won’t be reading the others. Superficially, Bloody Rose, and its world, sparks with life, and is brilliantly inventive and refreshingly up to date in sexual politics (which for fantasy fiction is extraordinary: good work Mr Eames), but ultimately I found it an unsatisfying read.
The series is taglined as being a cross between Terry Pratchett and Game of Thrones. Bloody Rose is certainly as superficial as the only George R R Martin novel I’ve read, but even Martin gives his characters gravitas, purpose, a sense that these are real people, to anchor their fantasy lives. Bloody Rose is prefaced with elaborate Tolkienesque, Pratchettesque maps, which scream derivativeness. The city map of Conthas is definitely an Ankh-Mopork knock-off. Eames’ characters inhabit a monster-infested land with creatures clearly derived from the Monster Manual, that bible of magical creatures that dungeonmasters the world over dip into for inspiration. Bands of mercenaries and assorted semi-magical practitioners and their entourages travel about the land performing ritual murder and slaughter in civic arenas, or they go to war against rampaging hordes. The characters are fun, believable up to a point – I particularly enjoyed Cura the Inkwitch, who attacks monsters, and others, by bringing her tattoos to life – but ultimately they’re pointless.
The big problem in the world-building is that the economic basis of the society is ignored, and we are presented with a gloriously messy, splashy, colourful firework of a book that doesn’t last. Take books, for example. Cura is seen reading a book, because its title is a joke made on the basis of her personality, and the joke is the point for that sentence. But the book is important: books are made of paper and moveable type, and need powered presses (if we’re in an Early Modern developmental period, and nothing in the world-building suggests that we’re not out of the medieval, pre-industrial period, even if there are sky portals and airships). Paper needs mills, and industrial machinery. Presses need industrial power to make and shape the iron, and power the process. Without the machinery, the books have to be fantastically expensive. Nothing suggests that Cura’s book is not a cheap, throwaway edition. Where does the money come from? Where does the power come from? Why does nobody care? If magic is the answer, because the Heartwyld runs on the kind of magic that does not require an equal and opposite reaction, then that’s a structural, foundational weakness that isn’t going to go away, no matter how glorious the surface invention. That’s why Piers Anthony’s novels haven’t lasted well, but Terry Pratchett’s have.
Sword and sorcery fantasy turned on its head with supremely satisfying equal-gender characterisation is definitely a Good Thing. Fantasy treated as a surface-level joke without giving the world its necessary cultural and industrial evolution is exasperating. Eames’ books are selling like hot cakes and they’re hugely popular in the fantasy community. But Bloody Rose, at least, is as satisfying as a firework. So enjoy it as a firework, but don’t put it in the same category as a Terry Pratchett novel.