Monday 14 July 2014

Harbinger of the Storm

(July 2014)

Harbinger of the Storm represents a very clear progression from its predecessor, Servant of the Underworld, both in terms of narrative development and authorial skill. It’s still, like an elderly priest’s ears, a little ragged around the edges, but it moves the story forward easily and significantly and the missteps are, in general, fewer and less significant than before.

We’re back in the heart of the Mexica empire prior to La Conquista. As the setting and characters are reestablished there are a still a few too many of the, “as you know, Dave…” lumps of exposition (wherein characters tell themselves and each other stuff they already know) that were so prevalent in the first book, but these quickly fade from view due to a very neat little narrative trick. Once again our narrator and protagonist is Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead and someone whose insistence on facts and the concrete, and disdain for social niceties and human interaction in general, probably puts him at the outer range of ‘normal’ on some spectrum or other. This aspect of his character is explored more deeply than before and actually makes him quite a good narrator for what is, at heart, a murder mystery with a healthy dose of conspiracy thrown in for good measure – Rising Sun with more blood and magic and less dubious Orentalism – because once he gets fully established the slightly neurotic statement and restatement of what he knows comes across as stemming from his character, not narrative convenience. Neat trick, as I said, and all the more so as I only noticed it while I was writing this up; once it gets up to speed this is an extremely immersive reading experience.

It does take some time to reach that cruising speed though, and although the wait is both fairly brief and well worth enduring, there’s no denying that the welter of politics, lore, and unpronounceable names in the early stages is a little exacting. Once she’s laid out her pieces, however, de Bodard moves them with considerable aptitude and speed: the characters live, the factions crystalise, the plot weaves, and, perhaps most impressively of all for a novel in which the gods are real and the ending is an almost literal deus ex machina, the climax still feels right and organic and honours all that comes before it. Everything has been earned by the characters, narratively speaking at least, and as a reader you never feel cheated.

Except on one score, perhaps. Harbinger of the Storm has… How to put this? Harbinger of the Storm has a hell of a lot of cock. It’s a sausage party of Black and White Ball proportions that never even comes close to troubling the Bechdel Test. It’s possible to argue that this is due to the setting – 15th Century Mesoamerica was probably not the most egalitarian of societies, what with the slavery and human sacrifice and all – but still. There’s an increasing intolerance of the ‘setting’ argument when used to excuse misogyny and lack of female representation in more traditional Medieval European-based fantasy, quite rightly in my opinion, and I think it’s fair to ask the same questions here. Though equally we should also recognize that in terms of outmoded tradition challenging there’s a hell of a lot of good work going on as well; it’s very firmly in credit on that score.

I guess what really rankles about the lack of women in this book is that it involves directly and (as far as I can see) needlessly sidelining one of the more promising and interesting characters from the first book. At the end of Servant of the Underworld, Acatl’s sister Mihmatini has proved herself to be both a forthright and practical foil to the male characters’ more egotistical concerns, and a magician of significant potential in her own right. I was genuinely looking forward to meeting up with her again, but instead all that happens here is that she gets dragged out to patch up some wounds and be pressurized into taking part in a weird coupling ceremony, after which she’s packed off ‘for her own safety’ and never heard from again. Not a fan of that, I must say.

Nevertheless, if it’s taken for what it is, rather than what I would have liked it to be, Harbinger of the Storm is by turns original, exciting, engrossing, and occasionally just plain gross. Can’t say fairer than that, really.

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