So this is Wolfblade, then: the first in a fantasy prequel trilogy to the unpromisingly-named The Demon Child. Let’s run through the reviewer’s checklist. Wolfblade’s style is somewhat pedestrian, and the world-building sketchy, although that might be blamed on the assumption that returning readers would remember their way around; characterisation is solid, with a hint of stock fantasy archetypes given a fresh coat of paint.
I’ve made the novel sound like just another lost soul, damned to wander the blighted wastelands of generic purgatory. But there’s a lack of sentimentality to Wolfblade which lets it squeeze through the gates of belaboured metaphor and enter the kingdom of heaven.
Not that heaven would likely take it, were there any choice in the matter. That same unsentimentality makes this a brutal read, whose characters – protagonists and antagonists alike – are morally compromised even before the usual backstabbing and treachery begins. The nominal heroine is Marla Wolfblade, a naïve young beauty and the sister of Hythria’s grotesquely debauched ruler; her arrival in the capital upon reaching marryin’ age signals the start of not just the novel proper but of a rapid education in the fate usually reserved for eligible princesses in a rigidly patriarchal society.
Wolfblade’s portrayal of a deeply misogynistic system is one of the things which makes it a little bit special. Modern novels too often opt for heavy-handed moralism, and one can almost sense the author wringing their hands as they write (no mean feat). It’s as though they’re terrified of being condemned for political incorrectness by those incapable of understanding that writing about something is not the same as condoning it. Jennifer Fallon manages a far more difficult trick, however: instead of bludgeoning her reader with that kind of intrusive narratorial censure, she lets the subject matter – and her characters – condemn themselves.
It’s not just institutional misogyny, either, which makes Fallon’s world such a jewel of progressive enlightenment; Hythrian society, like that of neighbouring Fardohnya, is built on the backs of its slaves. This again is presented without overt comment, the injustices of the system allowed to speak for themselves. Even Elezaar, the cunning, intelligent slave whose grasp of intrigue gives Marla the tools she needs to survive – and thrive – in politics, shows no particular inclination to fight the system; he’s too busy carving out a niche for himself as Marla’s indispensible adviser. Everything he does is directed towards a single goal – survival.
It’s this preference for pragmatism over romance which sets the novel apart from its peers. There’s a breathtakingly revelatory moment about halfway through the novel when one of the nicer characters, universally adored by the rogues gallery surrounding them, is in terrible danger; despite early hints at the novel’s willingness to plumb dark places, genre savvy tells you they’ll somehow scramble to safety through a combination of pluck, spunk and tedious plot contrivance. But… hang on… no, surely they wouldn’t… whoah. Didn’t see that coming. Why didn’t I see that coming?
It’s a delightful fake-out, swiftly followed by another shock – albeit one tempered with comedy as the guilty parties flail about in desperation – as staggeringly unromantic pragmatism overrules the expected declaration of bloody vengeance. Fallon’s willingness to twist against dramatic convention is as sharp and refreshing as a bite of lemon, and I haven’t seen an author so eager to brutalise or bump off her characters since George RR Martin – although I suspect a reader familiar with The Demon Child might find the fate of Wolfblade’s cast-list a little less surprising.
If the novel has one principal weakness, though, it’s in the character of Wrayan Lightfinger. Apprentice in the Sorcerers’ Collective – an organisation which seems vastly more concerned with power of the political sort than that of the arcane – he’s one of a tiny handful of humans who’re able to wield even the feeblest magics. He’s also a walking plot device, whose only seems to exist as a way for the author to write herself out of the occasional corner.
He’s one of the novel’s few really likeable characters, which earns him a lot of slack, but also creates a problem when he casually mind-rapes another character for little more purpose than to attract their master’s attention – the sorcerous equivalent of a slap with a duellist’s glove. Few of Wolfblade’s ensemble are exactly saintly, but the careless way he violates another’s mind doesn’t seem to mesh well with the character who in the very scene before expressed his abhorrence at the behaviour of Marla’s loathsome brother, Hythria’s crown prince:
“DO you know how often they carry slaves out of his room in sacks? This is a man who thinks drinking the milk of new mothers and the blood of young boys will make him more virile, for pity’s sake!”(p.258)
It isn’t just his shaky characterisation, either, as the main sub-plot surrounding Wrayan and the semi-divine Harshini (a gaggle of low-rent elves-without-the-pointy-ears) feel like they belong to a different book. As established, I haven’t read The Demon Child, but certainly there’s a by-the-numbers feeling to Wrayan’s sub-plot which suggests Fallon’s primary focus here isn’ton telling an interesting story but on laying the groundwork for tales already told. Whether Wrayan’s story can develop a bit of substance in the second and third chapters of the Wolfblade trilogy remains to be seen, but the first book alone does a fairly poor job of integrating him with the far more interesting political wrangling going on elsewhere.
A solid work with a refreshing subversive streak, Wolfblade yanks itself up out of the bloated ranks of fantasy fiction through a wicked willingness to follow its flawed characters’ decisions through to the logical, often-disastrous conclusions. It wouldn’t mean much if the basics weren’t there, but they are; the result is a worthwhile read.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com