King of the Bastards – B. Keene and S. Shrewsbury – 2/10

Ah, the loveable rogue. The bit-of-a-bastard we love to hate, who we send into every scenario with a twinkle in his eye with a friendly pat on the back as if to say, “Go on, you tosser. You’re a bit of a dick, but I like your style.”

Rogan, the protagonist of Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury’s “King of the Bastards”, is not one of these rogues.

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Rogan is a classic Conan-the Barbarian who has raided his way across the known antediluvian world, conquered Albion, got bored and gone off with some Atlanteans to beat his way across America – until a crisis at home beckons him back to defend the throne he left out of boredom from magic-imbued Zimbabwean mercenaries. He is in his late sixties but still a great fighter, and keen to die gloriously and to prove his worth. This has been done before – think of Pratchett’s beloved Cohen – except that unlike these examples Rogan is completely unlikeable. He is the ultimate nihilist, deeming everything worthless if he can’t kill it, eat it, or have sex with it. He complains about gods, family, allies, and enemies. Nothing seems to make him happy except killing and sex.

In many ways Rogan is the ultimate male fantasy, as imagined by two 13-year-olds with penis fixations. Practically every metaphor is sexual. Almost every foe, each of which reads like an obligatory “boss battle of the chapter”, is defeated by some attack on or involves some description of genitalia (the most memorable being giant-scorpian-centaur-woman having her own stinger shoved up her vagina). If he is criticised, his comeback invariably is along the lines of, “Yeah, well, I can still rut like a stud horse.” He is a deeply unlikeable character, and his treatment of female characters always involves either waving his manhood at them or flirting (read “assume they want to have sex with him”). One character, a spirited Amazon, briefly acts as a foil to this, reacting strongly against his mansplaining and misogyny, but even she succumbs to his animal charm and essentially rewards his behaviour. Even these Amazons, the only women not referred to in terms of sex, rape or childbirth, are almost exclusively defined by their single-breastedness. Only men are full characters, and only macho alpha-male sexualisers are not disparaged.

I realise that this is intended to be a pulp novel. It could be argued that I simply don’t like pulp and all the cliches that it brings. But I love cliché. I devour the likes of Gloryhammer and you can’t get much pulpier than zombie unicorns and the Astral Dwarves of Aberdeen. But even good pulp has to be well written. It can’t rely on constant penis-jokes (with visual cues from characters stifling smiles acting like the canned laughter in cheap sitcoms). It has to have decent dialogue, rather than a mixed of modern Americanisms combined with the use, abuse and misuse of ye-olde language. It has to ensure that the words being used are what the authors intend them to mean – a scene in which a sabre-tooth ravishes a man can only be meant to mean ravaged, but results in a very different mental image. There has to be internal logic, for just throwing cool things at a plot quickly succumbs to repetitive structure and a loss of sense of narrative. When people perform physically impossible feats, such as treading shark-infested water while shooting a water-logged bow with pin-point accuracy, this shatters what suspense of disbelief there was and makes the author look less in control of their narrative, as well as too lazy to proof-read and fact-check.

I gather from the unresolved ending that there will be a sequel. Based on other reviews that I have read, this is very much a Marmite book. Needless to say I am firmly in the Dislike camp.

Last Dragon – J. M. McDermott – 7/10

J. M. McDermott’s Last Dragon is in many respects a traditional fantasy tale – a ragtag bunch of misfits on a quest to defeat an army and save a kingdom. However, McDermott’s chosen style means that what could have been a formulaic tale is highly original. Eschewing the traditional linear plot, the story is told instead through the memories of the protagonist, Zhan, a former tribeswoman who joins up with a former paladin, Adel, to warn her unsuspecting people of a coming invasion by an unknown foe. The worlds of urban empires, desert mercenary tribes and nomadic tribes collide through this lens.

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This style is both a strength and a weakness of Last Dragon. Zhan’s memories are told largely in a loose epistular format to an absent lover, though towards the end of the book she addresses those around her in the same manner. The disjointed plot jumps between stages in her life, so that the reader is required to piece everything together based on the context. This withholding of information, an injunction to the reader to “Read On And Find Out”, is a technique that I have seen used to great effect in other high fantasies. Here it is often used to great effect for pathos and dramatic irony, at worst it can be off-putting to some readers, for sometimes the experience becomes less immersive in being reminded that the story is just that – a cleverly-constructed piece of fiction. It is a challenging read, but for the most part rewarding – except that due to the nature of memory, if one wants to read on and find everything out, they will be sorely disappointed. As in life, not all questions are answered by one person’s perspective.

McDermott should also be praised for his characterisation. All the protagonists – and antagonists – are believably human, with complicated motivations, loyalties and antipathies that are woven together and held in tension against one another throughout. Motives are not always clear, and some never become so. Alliances are seldom easy, based on trust that all know may be misfounded. The descriptions of death, violence, fear are well written, some of which are wonderfully visceral, especially the killing of Zhan’s grandfather (normally I would avoid such plot information, but as noted above the plotting is one long list of spoilers and hints at the past and future).

Other issues are minor. McDermott’s use of italics to indicate dialogue was initially distracting, although once I got used to it he began to cease indicating dialogue, let alone who was speaking, in later sections. McDermott asks a lot of his readers – and rightly – but this creates a piece of writing that is not so much for the casual reader.

For a debut, this is a fine novel. There are issues with the plotting and the typography, but those are personal foibles of mine. The story itself is well-trodden ground, but darker and with a greater sense of threat and realism than others of its ilk. Well worth a read, but only if you’re willing to put the effort in.