Saturday, 27 April 2013

Rachel Aaron: The Revenge of Eli Monpress

Quite why this is called The Revenge of Eli Monpress, I don't know. Monpress doesn't really get his comeuppance, and it's not as though he's handing out much in the line of comeuppances himself. I suspect the publisher wanted some label to slap onto the second anthology and thought "this'll do". I'd like to believe that Rachel Aaron didn't get a say in it, but who knows?

Having now ground my way through all 2000 or so pages that exist on the topic of Eli Monpress and his world, I feel like I perhaps shouldn't have. By the time I got to the end of The Legend of Eli Monpress, I was keeping going in the hope that the snarkier, more world weary aspects of the books would come to the fore in the back half of the sequences and that the bigger world plot would deal with my niggles about the rather sugary foreground. 

Alas, it was not to be. It's hard to know how edge of the seat the readers were about any of this when the books were new and you were waiting eagerly for the next instalment, rather than crunching your way through the whole lot in about a month (a month, I remind myself, when I could have been reading other things with a much lower diabetes risk). But I'm afraid that it all comes down to a sugar rush in the end, with our original band of three emerging blinking from the end of the world and setting out to continue their lives of crime as if more or less nothing had happened. Most of the more interesting characters have been killed, or worse, given in to the prevailing perkiness, and all is right back to where it used to be.

This is irritating in more ways than you'd expect. As the front half closed out, you got a sense of big existential struggle which the three musketeers were just buggering up with their frivolities. The back half gets into that existential struggle, but doesn't really sort it out at all. Eli and his chums are living in a profoundly weird world, but Aaron never really explains how it got that way, or what it's all supposed to mean - and when I say this, I don't mean that I expected it to be set out in chalk, with diagrams and exposition; I mean that nothing in what we're shown gives us any way to figure out what it's all about.

Briskly, first, the plots; in the fourth book, Eli and his chums see off an invasion by the most powerful tyrant the world has ever seen, more or less single handedly. And we get a sense of some of the backstory; everyone's strings are being pulled by the Shepherdess, who is one of three powers protecting the world from demons trying to get in. It's started to get on her nerves a bit, so she tends to goof around with the livestock and play her favourites off against each other, which is why Eli is so super powered and always seems to be in the way whenever major shit goes down. So there's that cleared up. In the fifth book, all this boredom gets to the Shepherdess big time, and she decides to destroy the world and retire to a tiny replica she's made with just the good bits. As even the least attentive reader might suspect, it falls to Eli and chums to frustrate this plan and save the world, which they duly do, without any important characters getting their hair more than temporarily mussed. As the book wraps up, all is as it was on the ground, though there have been some significant changes of personnel and responsibility up in heaven, one of which has resulted in all those spirits which infest everything in the world becoming ever so much more chatty and self-aware than they were. 

At which point, my head exploded, slightly. Like in most fantasy books, no-one in these books ever takes a crap, and equally they rarely stop for lunch or get a haircut. Usually I pay little heed to this, because I do all those things in real life and hardly need a fantasy book to give me some startling new perspective on them. But since no-one ever has a burger break in Aaron's books, she gets to skate around the fascinating problem of how you'd ever eat a meal in comfort in a world where everything is somewhat sentient. One character, Gin, gets to eat pigs pretty much non stop whenever he gets some downtime, but no-one ever seems to ponder how that would work in a world full of talking trees. How DO the various trees and bushes and bits of grass feel about being lunch, let alone the livestock? It's a puzzle which never really gets covered, but by the end of the sequence, Aaron has made it a lot worse. She's created a world where everything has a face; not even vegans would be able to get through the day with a clear conscience. And of course, when I have a moment to think about this kind of thing, there's something amiss; I shouldn't have the time left over from "ooh-ah" to think "but..."

Meanwhile back at the big picture, consider this. The world's a little bubble, preserved against a howling wasteland of demons outside the bubble. There are three Powers protecting it, hanging around for the past five thousand years waiting for the Creator to come back and sort out the problem of demon infestation. This is potentially fascinating; it's a longstanding bugbear of mine that these magical worlds don't make a button of sense with their permanent unchanging status quo, and here's Aaron with the beginnings of a notion that the unchanging status quo is enforced from the outside by bigger powers with reasons of their own for keeping things just so. But you'd think with 2000 whole pages to mess about with and five books, she could have done just a bit more to hint at the bigger picture beyond that status quo. Nope. At the end of it all, the world's still a bubble, still surrounded by monsters, and we still don't why the hell this is. Is it a computer game? Is it God's phone charm? We dunno, and I guess we ain't gonna. Considering that was all I was pushing through the books to find out, I feel vaguely gipped, albeit by my own idiocy in sticking with the programme when I could have done something else instead.

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