Paul Kearney might just be one of the undiscovered, rather than hidden, gems of fantasy fiction. His début “The Way to Babylon” (1992), two subsequent stand alone novels and a more traditional epic fantasy series “Monarchies of God” counting five books, all failed to bring a financial breakthrough even though these books were often praised by critics at least as competent efforts if not beyond that. His latest started (but never finished) trilogy “The Sea Beggars” – the first book of which I am about to review, was sadly dropped by Bantam, Kearney’s publisher at the time, just after the second book. The official explanation was not surprisingly of a financial nature. Hopefully his streak of bad luck will have ended this year with a new upcoming title “The Ten Thousand” (September 2008) backed by a new publisher - Solaris, which also plans to reissue the five Monarchies of God books as an omnibus duo.
Intrigued by Adam’s (The Wertzone) perseverant endorsement of Kearny as a severely underrated author, as well as by the blurb on the cover of “The Mark of Ran”, written by Steven Erikson, proclaiming Kearney as one of the best fantasy authors out there, I’ve decided to read the damned thing myself. And guess what, despite the fact that the book has its flaws, I was still pleasantly surprised and have to agree about the underrated part at least.
The World is slowly dying, forsaken by its Creator. Mankind schemes and plots and makes war across the world, forgetting that they are not its sole inheritors. Another race once dwelled here… We witness the story of Rol Corthisan, an orphan and a farm-boy, whose undisclosed heritage makes him unaware of his hidden potentials – now where have we heard that before? After his safe haven is destroyed he has to seek his only chance at help and knowledge. Afraid and alone he sails through a storm to a neighboring island state, where the mysterious figure of Michal Psellos takes him in. While under his patronage, Rol learns many skills (most of them are about being deadly) as well as finds himself in love with Rowen, his beautiful tutor and the only person besides Rol, who shares his ambiguous status in Michal’s household and is unfamiliar with her parentage. Without giving out too much let me conclude this brief synopsis by revealing that everything is not what it seems to be in the tower of Michal Psellos and after things get complicated and then resolved after a fashion, Rol sets out onto the sea, where a new life awaits him, a life full of danger and opportunities…but even as he tries to run from his personal past, a different kind of past rushes headlong into his direction instead.
“The Mark of Ran” reads like a simple and straight-forward story, which it is after a fashion, but Kearney also manages to transcend such trite generalization with his competent writing skills, fluid narrative, killer pacing, detailed world building (the annexed map and the mythos are intriguing at the least), carefully deployed mystery element of the general plot and the likeability of the characters, as well as plausibility of their actions. I’m not sure why, maybe the cover blurb is to fault for the comparison, but Kearney’s prose seems in a way akin to that of Erikson – the flow of narrative for example. If I tried hard enough I might also find some similarities between Rol and Crokus (a character in Erikson’s “Malazan Book of The Fallen” series).
Where the story starts to drop in intensity is well into the second half of the novel, which follows Rol as he traverses the seas as a sailor/officer. The seafaring part cannot possibly match up to the earlier chapters. Rol’s growth as a character seems to stall significantly in exchange for (in my opinion) filler action scenes and seemingly random courses in seamanship. The terminology itself didn’t bother me that much, but if you are not interested in principles of sailing and (old) sea vessels this sections of the book might bore you some.
Otherwise, I have to congratulate Kearney for not being afraid to kill people in his book, although the main cast seems a bit untouchable at moments. The body count is quite high in the end. One other thing I liked is how Kearney handles the love story - well not the love part of the story per se, it is only that he treads around this theme really elegantly, showing us love's bitter-sweet side without overdoing it.
With barely under 400 pages this novel rarely falters. “The Mark of Ran” is a well executed epic fantasy, which doesn't deserve to be buried under a heap of unremarkable fiction littering the market. (I will save the peculiar story of how I got this book for later.) All in all, this novel is more than a decent read and although a bit short of brilliant, it still made me eager to read its sequel - "The Forsaken Earth".
Foremost, this is not a double post. The review below was written by my colleague BlindMan and here you are about to read my thoughts on the book. I'm not trying to oppose him or sway you to agree with my views; all this is, is just an alternative side to the story....
*** A prime example of a world full of bitter, cynical, world-weary, Machiavellian...you probably see where I’m going? ***
Mr. Abercrombie managed to become the most reviewed and talked about fantasy author on the internet chat rooms, blogs, review sites and other related web-pages since his debut effort “The Blade Itself” merely two years ago. I’ll go about this review in good faith that you are already familiar with his first two book in “The First Law” trilogy or that you’ve at least heard or read about Joe Abercrombie – if not, than you can read Trin’s review of “Before They Are Hanged” (his sophomore effort) or my article, which I wrote in anticipation of the upcoming release of “Last Argument of Kings”. That being said let me continue with the review.
“Last Argument of Kings” is the third and final book of “The First Law” series; and what a majestic conclusion it is! The last third of the book is one of the crispiest, refreshing and mind-blowing endings I’ve been privileged to read…ever. But before the gist of this review, let me recap the story briefly (argumentably without much spoiler material).
*** Logen Ninefingers rejoins his friends in the bloody northern campaign set against Bethod – the self proclaimed King of Northmen, after the failed quest for “The Seed” he partook with Bayaz venturing into the furthest reaches of the World. Dogman, Thunderhead, Black Dow, Grim Harding and the rest of the stoic Northmen have some tough battles ahead of them and even hardest lessons to learn. The Union loses its king just before the impeding Gurkish invasion with Mamun, the first apprentice of Prophet Khalul, and his hundred Eaters at the fore. Jezal dan Luthar finds himself stretched between his affliction for Ardee West and his new acquired position. The misshapen Superior Glokta dan Sand has only his guile to keep his head from rolling of his shoulders while juggling several conflicting loyalties he finds himself trapped into. The good mentor Bayaz, First of the Magi, searches for every available means to stand against Mamun and his Eaters. Ferro’s heart remains set on vengeance and its not due to change soon. Last but not least, Major West finds himself in charge of the Union army in the North after the unfortunate demise of Lord Marshal Burr. ***
This novel remains epic fantasy to its core, but what a delightfully twisted core it is. Expect the unexpected and bear this in mind – nobody turns out what he appeared to be in the beginning. There are some surprisingly torturous conversions and new revelations along the way, especially when concerning our main protagonists. Logen and the Northmen shine the brightest for the better part of the book. I have to admit that I found the happening in Adua uninteresting at times and some of the chapters concentrating on Jezal, Ferro, Bayaz and even Glokta surprisingly dull and repetitive. Glokta, my personal favorite, wearied me down with his constant and peevish whimpering which actually lost its humorous dark edge for a while. But this all changes drastically when Abercrombie starts to knot the loose threads together in a grand finale. This occurs when the gist of action moves from the North into Adua, where the final cards are played out. Glokta, I’m delighted to say, has some hidden aces up his crooked sleeve, so my irritation and fears were laid to a serene rest.
“Last Argument of Kings” is not made of diamonds, but it can have its worth measured out in solid gold. If I had a few reservations about the book well into the second half of its length the ending chapters blew them all to dust. The plot is pretty straightforward and the writing quite brash in its simplicity, but that does not detract from novels worth as it gives Abercrombie ample opportunity to polish his other qualities and he succeeds at that with flying colors. I’ll say this though, if you found “The Blade Itself” or even “Before They Are Hanged” not to your liking then stay away from this one – in essence nothing really changes, it only brings gloss to what went before.
Camorr, a bustling city-state reminiscent of renaissance Venice, full of prosperous merchants and boisterous nobility, whose riches are ripe for the taking for those daring and smart enough to evade the consequence of being caught – a hang man’s noose on the Black Bridge. A small band of master-thieves, naming themselves the Gentlemen Bastards, and their ingenious garrista Locke Lamora, believe themselves just the ones for the job…until one of their most ambitious con-jobs goes awry, as the Midnighters - the Duke’s secret police - get a whiff of their trail, and the ruling seat of Capa Barsavi, a godfather like figure of Camorr’s underground, is being played against by the mysterious Grey King, whose identity and motivation eludes all.
Scott Lynch is a magnanimous new talent, who provided us with a playful, stylish, rich and shadowy debut sprinkled with high-octane thrill rides, witty dialogue and intriguing and well defined characters. The flash-back subchapters explain the genesis of the Gentlemen Bastards and reveal their childhood backgrounds, thus making their choices and motivations more transparent. These flash-backs might disrupt the pacing a bit, but are more intriguing and definitely preferable to large info-dumps taking the form of whole paragraphs/chapters.
One of the biggest advantages of Lies of Locke Lamora is the unparalleled world-building – the living and breathing city of Camorr, a most vivid experience for a susceptible audience. One can almost smell the stench of the canals, through which various barges plough in a similar way that cars navigate our cities. Camorr feels dense, smelly, busy, corrupted, but what is most important: never unrealistic and always shifting, just like a real metropole should be. The sea life and the decadent festivals that take place upon which, where prisoners and paid mercenaries fight ferocious, unrelenting and unique sea predators in an gladiator like manner, are also unnaturally tangible.
Locke Lamora and his fellow Bastards are possibly not always the most sympathetic of people, nonetheless all of the characters deserve the reader's respect, since their actions comply with the rules of plausibility and can be thus rationally explained, when exposed to scrutiny.
The narrative flows smoothly as Lynch is obviously a competent (an understatement!) storyteller and a most able writer in making. Lies of Locke Lamora is an utterly compulsive page-turner, I haven’t got the slightest idea, when it was the last time that I was so spellbound by a book until it was finished.
Some reviews I’ve managed to read present the book and especially the dialogue as intrinsically funny, but while I’d agree that Lynch is an intelligent writer with a sense of humour, I would not comment on the book as saturated or marked extensively by these “lighter” elements. The comparisons drawn between LoLL and the Ocean’s movie saga (Ocean’s 11, Ocean’ 12 and Ocean’s 13) is not completely undue (intelligent and able crooks, stealing from the rich, heist as the prevalent focus of the plot, occasional humorous banter etc.) but not entirely accurate either (LoLL has some “darker” elements than the movies mentioned in comparison, it is also not as overtly optimistic in tone, neither is as polished).
Despite all the praise, the book deserves just criticism as well. One of the rare things that bothered me, but it did so profoundly, is the resolution of the main plot and the ending. Without giving away too much, I must confess that I found the machinations behind the main storyline quite prosaic in comparison to what I was being led to expect from the sheer brilliance of exposition and ingeniousness of the main protagonists – especially Locke Lamora and his ability to outwit the devil himself. Also, the power of magic is just off-the-scale ridiculous and suspiciously feels like a deus ex machina that topples anything that stands in its path and as well covers for the plot holes, especially those behind Grey King’s unexplained power. The other thing that bothered me as well, is the occasional grittiness or rather bloodiness of the tale, which contrasts the more prevalent neutral-storytelling in quite an ungainly manner (for this reader anyway; and I am usually not against explicit content).
All things said, Lies of Locke Lamora remains one of the most visceral, compelling and fun fantasy reads that I’ve managed to lay my eyes upon. By now, the second part of the Gentlemen Bastard series (seven books are announced), Red Seas Under Red Skies, is already available and the third book is on the way; therefore if you like what you’ve read in this review and if you enjoy light but well written and highly exuberant read, I warmly suggest that you get your hands on your own copy of the book, it is definitely worth your time (and other resources as well).