Thursday, 24 April 2014

Den Patrick: The Boy with the Porcelain Blade

I have to admit, this had me with the title, which is so silly I nearly had to buy the book to find out if the writing could live up to it. I’m not sure, because I bought it as a Kindle e-book and it was the worst edited e-book I’ve read so far. Every few pages, an indeterminate amount of text went missing; not so much that I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be going on, but just enough to jolt me out of the narrative (something similar has been bugging me in Apple’s versions of Mick Herron, which have something wrong with the hyphenation of long words; a tiny thing, and yet jarring).

With a better book, I might have said to myself; sod this, I’ll buy a real copy, but The Boy with the Porcelain Blade is not so well written that I felt I needed to get every word just right. It’s solid, but not magical. It reminded me of a lot of other books, some better, some worse. It shares a lot of notions with Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s annoying Blade trilogy, which I will blog about if I ever get round to reading the third book; both have a teenage protagonist with a mysterious background taking on an entrenched power structure in an Italian renaissance milieu; Grimwood’s a slightly reimagined Venice with magic knocking our history out of its rut, and Patrick’s is an extra-terrestrial colony gone wrong, but the similarities were strong enough that I was relieved to see Patrick acknowledge them in his afterword.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I think that Patrick was stealing ideas. I just liked it that he had the grace to acknowledge the similarities and the inspiration he got from Grimwood’s work. The world of Porcelain Blade is strong enough to stand or fall on its merits, and medieval fantasy is looking played out; we’re probably going to see a lot more work set in renaissance styled worlds as people try to find a new angle on what are, in the end, a small number of narrative models.

Bold choices; I liked it that by the time the book ended, pretty much every villain was definitively dead. I like a writer who’s confident that he’s got a second set of bad guys for the sequel. I didn’t like the structure, because Patrick not only couldn’t quite pull off the alternating chapters properly, but also hamstrung his own narrative quite badly. Chapters alternated between the here-and-now and Lucien’s childhood. What I think Patrick was aiming for was for each pair of chapters to illuminate each other, which is always hard to pull off, but even worse, as he got into the back third of the book and the flashbacks got closer to the here-and-now, things were happening in the flashbacks which made kind of a hash of Lucien’s logic in the early going. 

Stuff I always complain about; why is everything always stuck for generations at a time? The backstory here - and this is out in the open in early exposition, so no spoilers arise - is that some kind of generation ship did a face-plant on the surface of Landfall. The crew took their time thawing out the colonists and by the time they woke up, it was to an oligarchy where everyone had their place and the captain was their god-emperor. I think the first time I came across that idea was in Larry Niven’s A Gift From Earth. Here, it’s not just a matter of political stasis and exploitation, but a retreat from any kind of modernity. It’s never clear why Landfall is stuck in the renaissance (though it’s weird that it’s stuck in a time we think of as an era of turbulence, change and challenge to authority).

It’s world where everyone is stuck in their place, except for a small clutter of mutants who enjoy unfettered social mobility at the price of being hated by everyone and living in a kind of slow motion Hunger Games where it’s expected that they’re going to slaughter each other before they’ve cleared puberty, with only the fittest surviving. What happens after that is apparently as much a mystery to them as it is to the reader, not least because no cadre of mutants seems to have survived long enough to find out. Lucien duly wrecks all of this, as heroes are wont to do in these books. His wreckage is one of the more credible things in the book, because Lucien is just not very good at it. Unlike most of these kids, Lucien’s not that smart and not that super. He’s just stubborn and lucky enough to make the most of the fact that his enemies are crazy as shit-house rats and slowed down by old age and decrepitude. It’s also fun that he kills them before they can monologue him to death with explanations of what the hell is going on, so we all get to the end of the book not much wiser than we began it, which is always a good idea at the end of a trilogy. There’s still a lot to figure out, though I have’t quite decided whether I’m going to follow it up.

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