Wolf in the Fold, by Simon Green

I’ve not been doing well with reading, recently. Mired in a Soviet monolith of an epic, I’ve been trying to sneak in a few nostalgic comfort-reads and the like, but even that hasn’t been entirely successful (the penultimate Discworld novel, in particular, is easy to read, yet also disheartening). So I turned once more to Simon Green’s Hawk and Fisher novels – I haven’t read this particular one before, but they’re the kind of thing you know is going to be unchallenging and mildly entertaining. I had a little while before I needed to sleep, this being a weekend, and so I thought I’d make a start on Wolf in the Fold.

Later, at an ungodly hour of the morning, I realised I’d accidentally read the entire novel in one sitting. True, it’s under 200 pages so it barely counts as a novel, but still – I haven’t done that in a while. Turns out, Wolf in the Fold is actually… well, kind of good.

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tough-travelingTrue Love

Love has often not been Fantasy’s strong suite – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a genre for so long primarily marketed at geeky teenage boys. As among many geeky teenage boys, there was sort of an apprehension that love was incredibly important and solved all your problems, but not really too much idea of what exactly it entailed. The love of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance, or of Rosie and Sam, was ideal for a fantasy novel: signposted from the beginning so as not to be a cause of any anxiety or confusion, then conveniently absent while all the exciting stuff was going on so as not to get in the way, and finally dealt with once and for all with a marriage at the end of the book, because as we all know real life ends with marriage…

…but along the way, the genre has produced the odd interesting pairing. Some truly moving; others, just truly disturbing. Here, in accordance with this ‘Tough Travelling’ meme that I keep meaning to participate in but never quite get around to, are a few that I can think of.

All are variants on the idea of ‘true love’ as presented in Fantasy; some may be more loving, or more true, than others. The meme calls for five… I ended up with 13. Well, 14, technically. But then I do way fewer than 1 in 3 of these, so I reckon I’m still in deficit…

Warning: beyond this point lie moderate spoilers for the works of Tolkien, Feist, Wurts, Weiss, Hickman, Eddings, Abrams, McCaffrey, Abrams, Hobb, Jordan, Green, Donaldson, Pratchett, Gentle, and Nyx Smith…

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Hawk and Fisher, by Simon R Green

There are a lot of reasons to be snobbish about a book like Hawk and Fisher. It’s not one genre, it’s two, and should rightfully be criticised for its unadventurous clichés in both: in essence, it’s just an Agatha Christie novel set in the Forgotten Realms (only with the serial numbers filed off). As a fantasy, it suffers from the low stakes and the derivative worldbuilding, exacerbated by a certain lack of grip on the issue of anachronisms; as a murder mystery, it suffers from the inevitable problems introduced by magic, and from frankly a certain predictability. The solution isn’t immediately obvious, but becomes obvious rather too soon, and at a deeper level the structure and tropes of the action are far too familiar, even speaking as someone who does not generally read in that genre.

In fact, it’s hard to really find all that much good to say about the book, which is why this review is so short. And yet… I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it a compelling page-turner and great fun to read… I’m just not sure why. Part of the pleasure no doubt comes from getting to see the day-to-day side of a fantasy setting, a theme I’ve always found appealing – Green does a good job of showing us the universalities of life, although, as mentioned, I fear he stepped over into anachronism now and then. I think the bulk of it, however, must simply be put down to the protagonists and their interraction… which I find a disturbing thing to have to say, because there was nothing particularly special about them. Maybe it’s just refreshing to see a realistic mature relationship in a fantasy novel.

Perhaps I can pad this out by harking back to my review of Green’s Blue Moon Rising, an earlier novel set in theoretically the same world, with some of the same characters (although the connection so far (there are a bunch more novels with these characters) is limited essentially to winks to the audience). There, I explained that the book had a strange dichotomy within it, between a fairly poor and irritating parody/comedy on the one hand and deep, dark psychological and nightmarish elements on the other. Well, the good news here is that the bad comedy has largely been dropped – there are moments of amusement, but there’s far less of that sardonic flippancy. The bad news, however, is that the darker elements also only show through briefly, and the deeper, more psychological elements are essentially absent. It’s altogether a much more contained, unchallenging, unambitious novel.

But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. Not every book has to be a masterpiece. I do hope that Green shows again the talent we saw in glimpses in Blue Moon Rising, but I’m not upset that this isn’t the book where that happens. I’m not upset that it’s derivative and predictable and lacks, to be honest, any real clear noteworth virtues. Because I enjoyed reading it. Sometimes an unchallenging, unsophisticated, cosy, sub-Christie mystery with married detectives in a pseudo-D&D fantasy world and few pretensions to literature is exactly what you want. I bought this book in an omnibus edition that collects the first three Hawk and Fisher novels; I haven’t raced ahead to the second novel, but I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll finish all three, and not in too distant a future.

Adrenaline: 3/5. There’s a bit too much talking after the fact for this to be a thriller, but with an ample supply of plot twists and a lean style it was a perfectly effective page-turner.

Emotion: 2/5. Some of the characters are surprisingly likeable, given how little effort is put into defining them, and there are emotional moments, but to be honest this isn’t a novel where emotional impact is the purpose.

Thought: 3/5. Yes, a thinking reader will figure out the mystery, or at least a goodly part of it, rather too early… but only if they really are a thinking reader.

Beauty: 3/5. Nothing particularly ugly to complain about here.

Craft: 3/5. The prose is not remarkable but is perfectly solid; the characterisation is thin, but works better than expected. The plot is a bit too obvious, but it’s well-constructed with plenty of twists, including one genuinely clever bit. Yes, it’s a workmanlike novel, but the workman responsible is quietly, unostentatiously, capable.

Endearingness: 3/5. There’s not enough here for me to really love it, but it was a pleasant read I’ll probably come back to some day.

Originality: 2/5. Fundamentally derivative – but the execution is clever enough, and the combination of tropes unusual enough for the genre, that I can’t give it the lowest score.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. I think that’s pretty fair on balance. It isn’t a good book – like I say, I’m struggle to think of anything really good about it. On the other hand, I can’t honestly say that there’s anything terrible about it either. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like it; if you don’t like this sort of thing, you probably won’t.