The first book I read for myself was The Lord of the Rings. The second was probably The Cat That Walked a Week (by Meindert De Jong, apparently). After that, it was probably a series of Roald Dahl books. I don’t remember the order, or even what all of them were.
But at some point fairly early on, my father took me to the local independent bookshop and we looked at the fantasy shelves (because I had been re-reading Tolkien fairly continuously, and had by then read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion and probably Unfinished Tales), and we semi-randomly picked out three first-of-a-series novels, all quite different from one another. One was The Colour of Magic; one was Pawn of Prophecy; the third was Never Deal with a Dragon, by Robert N. Charrette. I don’t know why they had that there. This was the almost magical time when even TSR books could only be bought in one of two bookshops far away in London – the basement of Forbidden Planet (long before their refurbishment; the ordered walls of white they have there now are awe-inspiring, but there’s something to be said for the stained, delinquent clutter I remember from my childhood) and the basement of a little place called Murder One (which was actually better stocked for shared-world fantasy than FP, as I recall). The alternative was ordering from the tiny local bookshop, and then waiting for a shipment for America. One time, I ordered a novel from them (Day of the Tempest, by Jean Rabe, as it happens), and had to wait literally a year for it to arrive – by which time I’d bought it in London myself, and its sequel too.
So, I don’t know why this book was there. There was only one bookshelf for fantasy, but they squeezed it on. We bought it; I started to read it; I didn’t think much of it. I was only maybe 8 at the time, and it was clearly too old for me. And probably quite inappropriate, given its sex and violence (not immense by modern adult standards, but distinctly more explicit than Tolkien or Eddings for an 8-year-old), but that didn’t matter. Children are fairly self-censoring in their reading – if a book is too adult for them, they’ll be bored by it. I was bored by this, and set it down quickly. It was Eddings that grabbed my attention back then. I didn’t pick the Shadowrun book up again for several years. I was probably 10, although I may have been an old 9, and this time I loved it. I finished the series of three (by now the anomalously eclectic choices of the bookshop had been rectified, and I was forced to ordered the next two), and then read half a dozen other Shadowrun books, all bought from London, before getting distracted first by Dragonlance, and then by Feist.
That’s a lot of background; but hopefully it conveys a little sliver of how I feel about the book. I took it with me camping with the Scouts, incidentally; it rained heavily, our tent was not watertight, and the book got very damp; when I got back, distraught, we dried it out on our radiator for days. For years afterward, the second half of the book had pages set in a sinuous, brittle wave. Even now, ten or fifteen years later, the final pages have a strange, blotchy darkness that makes me think they hold some lethal form of mould. This book is a very old and a very deep part of me.
Never Deal with a Dragon is two different beginnings – the beginnings of a trilogy, and the beginnings of a novelisation series that now has over forty installments. It was the first ever novel set in the Shadowrun campaign setting. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a lot of the interest comes from that setting, a near-future cyberpunk with Elves and Orks and Dragons (they insist on the capital letters, even for “Human”), and magic both hermetic and shamanic, and a hallucinatory super-internet called “the Matrix”. William Gibson hated it, seeing it as a bastard hybrid of his work and Tolkien; to be honest, it’s the Gibson part that’s problematic. Sometimes the paranoid super-cool noir of the cyberpunk feels too affected, too flamboyant, masking the really interesting parts of the setting.
On the other hand, being the first novel in the setting, Dragon has to pack itself, particularly its first half, with vast reams of exposition – especially since the author hasn’t attempted to begin with some subtle tale of a tiny corner of the world, but rather an expansive story that (while ultimately not that important on the scale of the entire setting) seems at times to want to go sight-seeing for no other reason than to show off the richness of the world around it. At other times, however, either through choice or through time constraints, the novel has to simply not bother explaining things. Normally, I like that sense of confusion in a novel, but there are times where the confusion actually becomes a problem – my understanding of one section, for instance, was damaged by a vehicle described as a ‘panzer’ and ‘a tank’ that it turns out, I think, can actually fly. I still don’t know if it’s actually a flying tank, or some sort of low-flying plane, or, if the former, how it can fly. This isn’t helped by the fact that neither the writing nor the editing is perfect when it comes to continuity issues (taking the same scene – it is established that rigging controls on the microlight are damaged, hence Sam flying it manually for Begay – but then in the next chapter he’s clearly jacked in. What?) – which does a disservice to the book, as it means that one or two things that look at first like continuity issues but which are actually reasonably clever little authorial tricks lose their impact… because I assumed they were just continuity errors and forgot about them, making me confused.
Overall, the plot seems ill-judged. A disjunct prologue (originally a short story) is followed by a coherent story that sets up the motivations for the rest of the book – but takes too long doing it. A chaotic, rambling series of incidents all ties together for a conclusion that is left until improbably late, with a small little epilogue section tacked on. Taking these in turn: not enough happens in the prologue, which seems a display-of-concept introduction to the world and not a real story; the next section is too slow with too little character interest or dramatic potential; the development section is too flighty to develop any particular strand; the conclusion is weakened by a split into two climaxes, the first effective but the second melodramatic, and never manages to integrate some of the underlying plots; the little epilogue (not marked as such) is twee and over-familiar.
The prose is curiously mixed. Taking any random section, it is rarely painful, and occassionally quite good: the chief flaws are perhaps over-fussiness (a matter of taste) and the common sci-fi trope of failing to make some of the futuristic terms avoid looking conspicuous and unnatural. And yet at times the attention seems to have wandered – twice, there are conversations that seem to have a line of dialogue that cannot be said by anybody present (patches of exchanged lines have been miscounted, so that the “he said” appears to come from the wrong person, leaving the preceding line with no clear attribution), and frequently there are glaring stylistic mistakes, like repeating the same word in too close a succession. The feeling I get overall is that Charrette is a diligent author, who puts a lot of work into trying to describe things, but who has little natural instinct with prose. A few annoying mistakes aside, the result is writing that is uninspired rather than awful.
It is to the author’s credit, then, that the characters are so vivid. They are not deep, but some are imbued with that elusive charisma that makes the reader care. Worthy of particular note in this respect is Dodger, an Elven hacker who affects a pseudo-medieval register that by any rights should be immensely annoying. As it is, Dodger does annoy, but Charrette does a good job of quickly showing a more sober, conflicted character underneath the façade, provoking some grudging empathy on my part. The characters of Hart, Ghost and to a lesser extent Sally were also bright, although the last was highly annoying. Unfortunately, two of the central characters – the protagonist, Sam Verner, and the bitter antagonist, Alice Crenshaw – are grey and uninteresting in comparison.
The central problem of the characters, however, is not their interest, but their motivation. For much of the early novel, Verner has no direct motivation, only a vague interest in finding out more about his sister, Janice, who has mutated into a metahuman, and consequently removed in some way (we don’t yet know how) from the world of his corporation, Renraku; this interest is too distant to impel us, and quickly is pushed back into the shadows. Instead, he is given a new motivation from traumatic events about a third of the way through the novel – but the link between that motivation and his actions is strained, and in any case the boringness of Sam, his almost total lack of powerful emotion, makes it hard to empathise with his new direction. We are told he feels strongly, but we do not feel it. Similarly, Crenshaw’s hatred of Verner seems entirely unfounded, and her actions driven by plot requirements; a crucial fact is let slip in the conclusion that casts a new light on what she has done, but the moment of revelation is so late, and crucially with so little foreshadowing, that it does little to redeem her character – we have by then written her off. Indeed, all the revelation does is cause us to sympathise with her more than the author seems to do – the treatment of her (both in terms of plot and in terms of writing) seems casual and contemptuous. Meanwhile, the lesser characters are entirely without motivation – in particular the sundry cast who help Verner out against their own interests for no real reason. In the case of Dodger, this seems believable if peculiar, perhaps because he has more screentime, and also because he is a more eccentric figure to begin with; in the case of the others, it feels railroaded.
What interest there is comes mostly from the setting. I think this can be broken into five parts: Verner works and lives in an arcology; the arcology’s owner, the Renraku corporation, is one of several ‘megacorporations’ fighting each other illicitly through the use of deniable assets, “shadowrunners”, who are essentially urban mercenaries; the technology is advanced from that of our time, particularly in the field of computing, with a worldwide virtual reality Matrix linking all systems; magic has returned to the world, along with Dragons; and many humans have undergone mutations into Elves, Dwarves, Orks and Trolls.
The arcology element is barely touched on. When I read it, I didn’t know what an arcology was, and this didn’t really tell me. The corporate warfare angle, with all its concomitant intrigue and layers of mystery, is demonstrated, but not really explored – it isn’t a conspiracy novel, where we get to the hear t of things. That said, there is a certain anarchic charm to the unknowable wheels within wheels that spin the plot; we feel alienated by the repeatedly-emphasised distance of the protagonist from any sort of freedom or power. At the upper levels, however, the villains seemed to have a sadly familiar moustache-twirling air to them that made them hard to take seriously. Mr Drake, in particular, is a cartoon character. The account of the Matrix is prescient for its time, but feels dated now that we actually have the internet; it is neither as mundane as the internet, nor as extramundane as a virtual reality world would be; instead, it’s trapped in an uncanny valley that seems to emphasise its alien nature in a way that sits uneasily in a modern world in which the question is not how the Matrix could exist, but rather why anybody would bother. Magic plays a plot role, but its mechanics are never investigated properly, nor its effects, and it feels more like an easier get-out. The idea of mutation is intriguing, but sadly under-examined: after some initial worries about Janice, metahumans are more or less taken for granted from that point on. This is a great shame, as the stigma and possibilities of goblinization in a high-tech modern setting could make fertile ground for a novel.
The novel is the first of a trilogy, but little has been left for the next two to work with. The two main plot points remaining are the fate of Janice, and Sato’s involvement in it, and the Artificial Intelligence that Renraku are developing. The first plot line was introduced but then abandoned, while the second, by the end of the novel, has become intriguing and foreboding, but too small an element to build a trilogy on.
One final plot, however, bears mention: the Doppelganger project. This appears concluded with the end of the book – abruptly and artificially so – but while it’s there, it’s unusually chilling. It may just be my weak stomach and lack of experience in the horror genre, but I’ve always found the Doppelganger truly monstrous, and some of its scenes revolting.
Adrenaline: 2/5. Never really that exciting, except for the climactic fight scene. Then again, it wasn’t a real struggle to get through, aside from a couple of unfortunate falls in tension at points.
Emotion: 2/5. Hard to really feel too much, as it’s hard to care about the characters or the plot. That said, I did sort of feel some connexion to some of the characters, so it could have been worse. Also, the Doppelganger.
Thought: 2/5. Some thought, yes – both because of the setting, and because we’re dropped into the setting and have to be concentrating to know what’s going on. But the interesting elements of the setting are not explored, only used as background colouring (for instance, the presence of metahumans has no vital plot significance, and could be written out with a minimum of effort).
Beauty: 1/5. Can’t really think of anything beautiful in the novel. The prose isn’t too bad, but it’s not aesthetically notable. Perhaps the repugnant ickyness of the Doppelganger scenes has a degree of beautiful anti-beauty, but I don’t want to hang too much praise on a very small part of the book, especially as it’s probably a matter of personal reaction.
Craft: 2/5. The plot is meandering and in places pointless, with too much emphasis on some parts and not enough on others – but it is at least fairly ambitious in its complexity. Characterisation is shallow, but scores a few hits. The prose is solid, and quite descriptive for this type of book, but not exceptional, and there are some flaws (both in style and in continuity) that better editing should have removed.
Endearingness: 2/5. Leaving aside my personal nostalgia, it’s not a book I’d be likely to want to read that often. Its warm points are the setting it introduces and perhaps some of the characters, but neither of this are unique selling points.
Originality: 3/5. The plot is confused, but rather more intricate and unexpected than might be expected from this type of pulp fiction, and the setting, while not explored in detail, is intriguing and unusual (again, I re-iterate that this is more about rareness than about historical lack of predecessors, so the similarities to Gibson don’t count against it, especially as I haven’t read Gibson).
Overall: 2/7. Just Plain Bad. It could have been worse, and it’s almost into “bad but with redeeming features”. It wasn’t bad enough to stop me from intending to re-read the other two books in the trilogy. It should be remembered that I tend to only review books that I think will be good, or that I have nostalgic affection for, so there really are a whole load of books out there that are far worse than this.