Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Fell Sword

The Fell Sword is what you might call the difficult second book. Some of the obvious reasons don’t apply. The Red Knight wasn’t Cameron's first published book, nor his first experience with extended narrative. So it’s not the problem you often see where a writer has had years to polish the first book and then has to get the second one out on a much tighter time frame. I think it’s the mushy middle problem, where a writer has an opening idea and a roughed in endgame, but isn’t sure about the pacing of the middle. But from the look of The Fell Sword, there could be a hell of a lot of mushy middle still to go; the book is full of false starts and unfinished thoughts in all the side plots. 

The main plot - the one big incident - is the Red Knight’s intervention in a palace coup in Cameron’s version of Byzantium (one of the more engaging aspects of Cameron’s fantasy world is the way in which he cavalierly wedges High Medieval England up against late period Byzantium AND a gunpowderless Last of the Mohicans). Tucked in around the edges we’ve got palace intrigue in Harndon and the big bad from the last book regrouping.

The regrouping; well, no matter what Cameron’s characters might say about good and evil being hard to figure, the big bad is definitely bigger and badder than anything else going on in the book. There’s a hint in the book of the idea that F Paul Wilson used all the way through the Adversary sequence; two powers squabbling over a world using catspaws whose actions may have no relationship with the real motives of their masters. I’ve never found that argument terribly persuasive; on the one hand, I don’t really care how good your intentions are when the outcomes are measured in atrocity, and on the other hand it’s giving rhetorical shelter to an all-too pervasive argument in the real world that we should leave it to those in charge to make the “hard” decisions which spread terror and death and hardship but which will somehow make the world a better place if we look at the bigger picture. 

The palace intrigue; well it’s not so much that I wanted to see more of it as that I wanted to see it resolved or come to some kind of climax. One of the better things in Robin Hobbs’ Farseer trilogy is the sense of hazard as the bad guys get the upper hand at Court and it looks more and more as though Fitz is just going to get quietly crushed without a fuss. Even though the reader has to know that a trilogy with a first person narrator isn’t going to fizzle out like that, Hobbs does a pretty good job of creating the menace and threat which small-time bullying by powerful people can create. Cameron’s court intrigues have much higher stakes and none of the safety net, so it’s frustrating to see the tension ramp up without any sense of closure by book’s end. I felt the same about the trading subplot, which gets set up as a big deal and then collapses without any apparent consequences.

It all still just about works. The Red Knight is becoming ever more annoyingly superpowered, and the core characters are too magical by half, but the stuff around the edges is still compelling and Cameron’s got a good knack for cooking up secondary characters to root for. And although I’ve complained about his preoccupation with details of armour, he’s better than most fantasy writers at conveying the sense of what’s supposed to be happening in a big battle. I like his willingness to steal bits of history from all over the place and ram them in where they oughtn’t to fit, even if a lot of the time he just leaves them sticking out of the narrative and never comes back to them.

The question in my mind is not so much where this is all going - big confrontation between good and evil, natch - as just how long it’s all supposed to take? Is this going to a trilogy or some big sprawling mess of books which takes forever to get to the endgame?

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