The Erebus Sequence: Book I
I can’t remember exactly where I first came across The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, but I was intrigued enough to buy it without knowing anything about it. Then, shortly before I was due to start it, I spotted a review at the Speculative Scotsman, which made it quite clear that the book was going to have some weaknesses. (I don’t usually read reviews of things that I’m about to read for myself, but I’d only just discovered his blog and was enjoying it too much to stop.) However I went ahead and read it anyway. The title was interesting, the cover enticing and, as we all know, I’m not the kind of girl who can easily resist a fantasy swashbuckler.
Having turned the final pages, I’m inclined to agree with much of what the Speculative Scotsman said about its problems. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the ideas are so tantalising, but the concept is let down by the weakness of the writing itself. (Incidentally, apropos the cover, just pause a moment to savour the tagline: ‘He’ll fight until he’s shattered’. Surely such a jokey tone is inappropriate for a book as weird and dark as this?)
We are in the sprawling citadel of Demesne, where four noble houses are jostling for influence: House Fontein, known for their soldiers and swordsmen; House Contadino, with their farmers and rich harvests; House Prospero, with their artificers and craftsmen; and House Erudito, with their scholars. But each of these four families also has a share in a darker, less palatable legacy of their world of Landfall: the Orfani. These children, motherless and fatherless, are shared out among the houses and brought up as adopted members of the nobility until they can make their own choice of allegiance at the age of sixteen. They are given an excellent education, military training and the best care money can buy. And yet privilege isn’t the only thing that marks them out, for all the Orfani have some kind of strange deformity. Bound together by their situation, these young people engage in their own feuds and struggles as they try to understand their purpose in their shadowy world. Where are their parents? Why does the sinister Majordomo take such an interest in them? And what is the point of the Orfani being under the king’s protection when no one has even seen the king for hundreds of years?
Lucien de Fontein is determined to start getting some answers. He has been marked out his whole life, not only by his missing ears which show him to be Orfano, but also by his solitary habits which have kept him at a distance from most of his fellow Orfani. As he reaches his eighteenth year, he realises that cracks are beginning to show among the Orfani, as the more powerful begin to pick off the young and the weak. With the king still cloistered away, the Majordomo playing his own enigmatic part in the game, and a series of young girls going missing, there is clearly something very wrong at the heart of Demesne. With little on his side except courage, a strong sense of injustice and a sword, Lucien is going to find out what that is. But it won’t be easy. Despite his reclusiveness he has his fair share of enemies – including the formidable Golia, who is the most dangerous of all the Orfani, and Golia’s protector, Maestro di Spada Giancarlo – both of whom have their own reasons for wanting him removed from the game-board. And so Lucien finds himself forced into the very heart of a power-play not only for his own future but for Demesne’s.
How to describe the feel of the book? Much of it is quite cinematic and sometimes it strays into positively nightmarish territory, as if Guillermo del Toro had blended Gormenghast and X-Men and added a slight seasoning of The Tempest. However, the impressive images which it conjures up aren’t matched by the quality of the writing. The representation of emotions, in particular, can feel quite superficial and somehow adolescent. While I appreciate that most of the characters are teenagers, there could be greater depth and subtlety in the way that the narrative deals with them, which in turn would make them feel more like real people. I had real difficulty feeling any kind of emotional investment in Lucien’s fate: although he was clearly supposed to be our hero, I couldn’t help feeling that we were being told how special he was rather than being shown it. As a result, I just got the impression of a rather spoiled young man with a penchant for storming out of rooms and getting into fights, and I didn’t quite understand how he had managed to assemble his affectionate circle of protectors.
There was also a slight issue of consistency in how the Orfani are regarded by their non-Orfano peers. On the one hand you have Lucien’s classmates making snide comments about ‘streghe’ and there is obviously a lot of fear and wariness among the population as a whole; but, on the other hand, Lucien is welcomed and feted by the nobility and he’s even the prime candidate for a very elite marriage. It’s never really explained why the attitudes would differ so much. My final comment, because I don’t want to be too stern about the whole thing, would be that there’s slightly too much skipping around in time: the chapters alternate between the ‘present day’ and vignettes from Lucien’s younger days. As I said regarding The Republic of Thieves, I’m a bear of little brain in this respect, and often find it distracting when there are too many flashbacks interrupting the course of the main plot. That was very much the case here too.
Well, actually that wasn’t my final final comment, because there’s something that niggled me all the way through. It’s either an example of sloppy world-building (which I doubt) or the promise of an extremely clever twist coming up later in the series. I couldn’t help noticing that, for a fantasy novel, the inhabitants of Demesne rely very heavily on European culture. The language they speak is Italian: not a fantasy language influenced by Italian (like the pseudo-Spanish used in The Golden Key) but proper Italian. Lucien reads books about Greek mythology and the Trojan War, and names his pet drakes after Achilles, Antigone and Agamemnon. There is a throwaway reference to the ‘Maltese’ cross-piece of a sword. How is it, I wondered, that we could be in a fantasy world and yet still have the Trojan War, Malta and Italy? Why wouldn’t the people in Demesne refer to myths or neighbouring countries of their own?
Two possible explanations occur to me. These aren’t spoilers, obviously, because I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going to happen and I could be barking up entirely the wrong tree; but just in case I am on the right track, you might want to be careful. The first possibility is that it’s just laziness: an unwillingness to spend time creating a back-story of myths and geography which are native to this world, and using references from our own as a shortcut. I don’t want to believe that. The author has worked hard to create a social structure and a physical setting for his characters, and it seems odd that he wouldn’t have taken the same care over the rest of his world-building.
If, on the contrary, he deliberately decided to use these European cultural references, that throws up an absolutely fascinating second possibility. Perhaps Demesne and Landfall are in our universe, if not actually on our planet. Perhaps the people who live there originally came from our world and have brought our culture with them. I began to suspect that the ships which were wrecked on Landfall, bringing the original settlers, were actually spaceships rather than sea-ships, and that the travellers were sleeping so deeply because they were in some kind of cryogenic suspension. Seen in this way, the world of Landfall is essentially an island in space; and the king becomes a blend of Prospero, Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, exploiting those under his control to satisfy his own ruthless desire for experimentation. And the book, of course, turns out not to be fantasy at all, but science fiction. Now that would be a twist worth having.
However, I can’t really give extra credit for plot twists which may or may not be coming up, and the fact remains that the book is stylistically a little awkward here and there. Lucien needs to become slightly more sophisticated, both as a person and as a fictional construct. Rather than just being told he’s special, we need to start seeing his talents and qualities for ourselves. But it may be that, with a little more time and a bit more polish, this series could develop into something rather interesting…