It’s rare for me not to know much about the books I read. Until recently, I had the tendency to latch on to one author (or shared world) at a time and read through their works – so that my collection is clumped, and when I think about an author I can think about a whole range of books they’ve written.
Blue Moon Rising is an exception to that. I didn’t buy it; it was given to me, along with two other genre novels, which had been found reduced. All three are fairly obscure – in internet discussions, I’ve heard one of them (Illusion, by Paula Volsky) mentioned once or twice, and another is so obscure that it was difficult for me even to find out whether the author had written anything else. Blue Moon Rising is somewhere in between. Apparently, a lot of people do buy Simon Green’s books, I just haven’t found any of those people yet. All three of the books had elements that interested me; all three had things that put me off. I haven’t bought anything else by any of the three authors; in the case of this book, I’m really not sure whether or not I should correct that omission.
For those, like me, who are ignorant, Simon R Green is one of the most prolific fantasy and science fiction writers of our age. He’s probably best known for the eight volumes of his Deathstalker series (described as a parody of space opera), and the three connected Twilight of the Empire novels. There are also six Hawk and Fisher novels, four Forest Kingdom novels, three Secret History novels (with names that parody James Bond titles), and ten Nightside books, with an eleventh on the way. And two standalones. And the novelisation of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Aside from that last, all those books are from the last two decades. Blue Moon Rising was published in 1991 – along with four other novels. If you’re like me, none of this sounds very promising.
Blue Moon Rising is… well, as the back of the book says: “A second son, a tired dragon, a unicorn without a horn, and a princess with a wicked left hook: an unlikely company to face a Demon Prince.” Yes, poor old Prince Rupert has been sent away to kill a dragon, only to find that the dragon, who has a butterfly collection rather than a hoard of gold, desperately needs rescuing from an annoying princess he’s been burdened with. The princess, incidentally, is a feisty tomboy who can’t understand why people at court want to her to behave in a more ‘feminine’ fashion, and who expresses annoyance through casual violence. If you’re like me, none that that sounds very promising either. I can almost taste the zany, oh-so-original exclamation marks dripping off that sales pitch.
I’ll be honest: if I were reading it for the first time today, I’m not sure I’d have got past the first chapter of this. It makes it abundantly, painfully, clear what sort of novel this is going to be: a semi-serious parodic epic fantasy that mixes whacky disregard for logic with just enough (sometimes anachronistic) realism to poke fun at the tropes of the genre without letting that stop it from telling exactly the same story as all the novels its laughing at. That much is clear within a few pages, as paragraphs of humorous, though painfully obvious and cliché, witty ‘banter’ between the Prince and his Unicorn about how minstrels never mention the bad bits of adventuring, like how to urinate while wearing armour, are quickly followed by an encounter with goblins… who are so cowardly that they instantly surrender despite the pleading of their tough-guy leader. Oh god. I don’t deny that this sort of thing can be funny… but it’s so tired, so predictable, that it’s hard not to groan.
Except that that’s not what this book is about. The first chapter is, sure. And to a lesser extent the second chapter. The third chapter (there are ten of them in total, one an epilogue, though it’s not named as such) starts out like that… and then it changes gear. The moment comes when several characters investigate the abandoned village of Coppertown, which has clearly been attacked by some sort of minions of the night – and though nothing about the incident is original or unpredictable (the villain of the chapter is straight of the D&D Monstrous Manual, and the conceit is literally a century old and quite famous), it is extremely well done. Monstrous Manual it may be, but I’ve never seen a D&D campaign where the horror of the enemy was as well conveyed. If there’s one way to characterise the opening chapter of the book it’s ‘blasé’ – so knowing that nothing seems really dangerous – but the Coppertown moment is the exact opposite, taking what in many books would have been treated as a casual random encounter and reminds us just how horrible, and terrifying, it would really be. And if the reader is wondering after that whether the gears will change again – yes, yes they will. The author very quickly ramps through the gears from light-hearted parody to gritty, bloody, moving drama, as family feuds and buried secrets, treason and plot, demons and sorcerers and famine and plague and the end of all things break through the happy surface of flippancy.
That’s not to say the flippancy ever completely goes away – throughout the novel there is a dry, almost bitter, humour – but when the events of the novel become dramatic, that humour comes into its own, becomes dark and realistic, where previously it had seemed indulgent and artificial. At its height, Blue Moon Rising is touching, exciting and amusing all at once.
Most impressive of all, however, is the way in which the novel achieves what I think is one of the hallmarks of, indeed the purposes of, classic fantasy: the exaggerated, incredible setting does not detract from the realism of the characters, but instead serves to highlight it. Like a war story or a western, a good heroic fantasy uses its backdrop of almost unimaginable darkness to cast a stark, discerning light on the morality and personal character of the people who inhabit that world; and there is no doubt that this does that. The novel is distinguished from average pulp fantasy through its commitment to moral realism – a complete moral realism that does not simply avoid making its characters plainly good or plainly bad, but that further avoids even committing to exactly what good or bad might be. The characters are all flawed, but it’s not entirely clear which parts are the flaws and which the virtues. In particular, an ongoing theme of the book is that of the extent of duty – how much can duty ask of a man or a woman? Does there ever come a point when we can set our duty down and say that we have done enough and that no more can be asked of us? And can our duty force us to do things that would otherwise be considered immoral – does duty trump morality, or does duty sometimes not allow us the luxury of not being contemptible? Or then again, is duty only a shield for evil and an excuse for a ‘pragmatic’ cowardice? Points are made on all sides, and rarely didactically, but the ultimate conclusion is left to the reader.
As a result of this ambiguity, Blue Moon Rising is populated by some surprisingly complicated and compelling characters, given that it is a standalone novel of moderate length that is packed with incident and short on long contemplations. Aside from the heroic but still not uninteresting Prince Rupert, particular mention must go to his father, King John, immediately likeable but perpetrator of some callous decisions, and mired in self-doubt as his kingdom falls from glory to desolation, and the elder son, Prince Harald, who is cold, manipulative, deceitful, two-faced, misogynist, insecure, brutal, petty… who in other words may well make an excellent king. Supporting characters include the anonymous Champion – somewhere on the borderline between Lancelot and a broken and psychotic man; the Astrologer, Thomas Grey, forced into the role of magical enforcer and hated eminence grise; Lord Darius, hereditary minister of war who would far rather be studying magic; Sir Blays, one of the king’s oldest friend, driven into treason as things turn from bad to worse. Everybody is driven by their duty or by other external demands; the only character who has walked away is the High Warlock, who long ago ran away from the Kingdom, abandoning his heroic role to live in intoxicated hermitage in a Dark Tower with no doors – “a coward, a traitor, and a drunk”.
The novel is not without its flaws. Leaving aside my distaste for its lighter moments, I think that there is an uncomfortable tension between the two poles of style – Harald, for instance, seems to be as intelligent as the dark and realistic elements require, and then suddenly as stupid as the comedy demands. More seriously, the parodic approach to heroic fantasy produces a lacksadaisical attitude toward plot and worldbuilding that betrays the more serious side – repeatedly there are annoying lapses somewhere between plot holes and continuity errors, and nothing ever really quite makes sense. There are also problems in pacing and dramatic structure (even leaving aside the slow and misleading opening): the scope of the plot is too broad for the wordcount and the narrative style, and at times he struggles to hold it all together, which results in certain characters being absent for long stretches, and others receiving less screentime than dramatic satisfaction demands; the plot toward the end feels increasingly railroaded, and the climax combines a too-predictable dramatic moment with a deus ex machina – it’s well done, as DEMs go, but it still is one, and it feels cheap. The aftermath feels rushed and betrays some of the earlier complexities, although it is touchingly written.
All in all, my impression is that Blue Moon Rising is a rather schizophrenic novel – a light-hearted, knowing adventure story has been combined with a dark, grey, meaningful and dramatic tale of unashamed but complicated heroism; it is to the credit of the author that the two elements are compatible at all, but I’m not convinced that the whole is entirely a success. It is also mishandled and unsophisticated in places; this may be interpreted as laziness on the part of the author, but as this was the first original novel of his career, it may be a reflection of naivety or inexperience.
Some people won’t mind the problems. Those who like the humour and can tolerate the autoparodic elements, while not objecting to a little drama, may find this pleasant light reading with a little extra bite. I also think it would make a good novel for children – the style is not dumbed down, but it is always accessible, and though it touches on very dark matters, it does so in a restrained and delicate fashion, preferring implication where others might use profanity or gratuitous gore, and the parodic side would feel more fresh to younger readers; additionally, the way in which it deals with issues of morality and virtue in an interesting but not lecturing fashion may make it interesting for parents to recommend.
Adrenaline: 3/5. I was gripped throughout (after the first few chapters), but never thrilled. Partly that’s those inexperienced mistakes; mostly, I think, it’s the sporadic nature of the action, which throbs rather than climaxes. What climax there was felt too weak for what had gone before, and the start is too slow.
Emotion: 3/5. As a child, I would have ranked this at least a 4, and possibly a 5. I think I’ve cried at the epilogue before. As an adult, though, a book has to work a little harder, and the (intentionally) derivative and familiar aspects of character and plot reduce the impact somewhat.
Thought: 3/5. Those questions about duty, and some questions about courage, raise this above the average pulp fantasy, but they are not explored in depth, and most of the novel is fairly mindless stuff. The plot belies its formulaic appearance with some interesting complexities and originalities, which encourage a little thinking ahead and reflection, but very little.
Beauty: 2/5. In places it feels as tired as a zombie and its wit may be self-knowing but it is rarely elegant or incisive. That said, it does have some scenes of heroism and tragedy that could be beautiful – yet the prose, while not ugly, is not refined enough to paint in the finer colours. [My, that sounded pretentious. *shrugs* Oh well. My prose is evidently not refined enough to paint in many shades of not-an-arsehole. I try my best]
Craft: 2/5. It’s not badly written. As I think you may have gathered, I don’t think it hits the right note when it strives for levity, except when that levity comes with the colouring lent it by surrounding gravity. There are problems with the plot. The prose is unremarkable. It does try to carve more sophisticated characters and takes the plot in some new directions, but in neither respect does that involve really notable craftwork. It is funny in places, and mostly effective. In the end, I marked it down because more work could have been done on making the ending work better.
Endearingness: 3/5. I’d like to put this higher, but I can’t. I’m not apathetic toward it – I’m torn. I really want to like it a little more than I do. I want to read more about the characters – but I’m not sure I trust him with them. I’m not sure that I so much enjoy the book as enjoy what the book could have been.
Originality: 3/5. I should probably have put this lower. In some ways, it’s very familiar. However, it does try to branch out in every way – in plot, in character, in themes… so I give it the benefit of the doubt for its ambition.
Overall: 4/7. Not Bad, Really. And I really don’t know whether to read more of Green. I said I enjoyed what the book could have been, and I’m torn between hope and fear – I don’t want to find out that he doesn’t get any better than this. The two obvious next steps would be the later Forest Kingdom novels, which share the same setting, or the many Hawk and Fisher novels, which share some characters, within the same world; but the first look like more formulaic heroic fantasies, and although I think he pulled it off this time, I worry that repeating the same approach to de-formulaicising fantasy will make that approach itself feel formulaic; the latter series have taglines that make me groan. Oh god, not a pair of unconventional cops in a confused medieval/renaissance film noir setting – oh, the zany exploits they will have, the wise-cracking high-jinks! And yet… I do love the characters, in their simplistic and exploitative way. I guess it comes down to whether Green goes on to be dark and nuanced with flashes of ironic humour, or whether he goes for light ironic humour with servings of drama and unpleasantness. If the former, I could grow to love him. If the latter, I could easily hate him. I’m also tempted to give Shadows Fall a try – it’s a standalone, it seems more serious, and he calls it the best thing he’s done.