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.

Continue reading

Winner Takes All, by Simon R Green

Winner Takes All is the loose sequel to Hawk and Fisher, and pretty much everything I said about the last one applies here as well.

Unfortunately, it’s not as good.

The big problem is the plot – or lack of it. The first book was a pretty clear murder mystery, with a tightly limited scope – and that excused or avoided a lot of the problems in the way Green is writing these books. The more clear-cut mystery element allowed Hawk and Fisher to ask people a lot of questions, in a way that the more open story of Winner Takes All just doesn’t – as a result, Hawk in particular this time comes across like the protagonist of a bad RPG, going up to each person in turn and going through all the dialogue options: “tell me about X?”, “what do you think about Y?”, rinse and repeat. Similarly, the lack of compelling plot motion works well in a murder mystery set almost entirely in a single building – people sitting around, waiting, being nervous, not knowing what’s going on, is sort of integral to that scenario. Giving his characters more freedom, letting them roam the streets more, actually makes them seem more passive, draws attention to how much of the ‘plot’ is just stuff happening. Giving more screentime to the invented world just makes it look thinner and more boring: sticking a few seemingly (but not necessarily) anachronistic notes in the background is interesting and entertaining, but recreating film noir in the middle ages is just kind of obvious.

So the writing’s not that great, the plot isn’t very interesting, the setting does a few things in an interesting way (one thing I’ve liked in both these books, for instance, is that Green’s given just a little more attention to how magic is integrated as a substitute for technology) but is mostly unexciting…

…but I still cruised through it, enjoying the journey. I wasn’t really sure why I enjoyed the first one, and I’m even less sure why I enjoyed the second, given that it was noticeably worse.

I think a big part is that Green isn’t a really bad writer. Not being a really bad writer is a surprisingly rare trait in writers, it seems. Green may be clumsy now and then, but he’s proficient enough not to get in the way, so we get to enjoy the vaguely-interesting, somewhat-amusing story. It’s almost like a demonstration of how easy it is to have a good story, how little is actually needed when you don’t mess it up. It’s of sort of to fiction as fresh bread and butter is to cuisine. You may need something special to write a brilliant book… but I think maybe stories are enjoyable just by default, and sometimes it’s a matter of not messing up in telling them. Green doesn’t mess up very much – so although the characters aren’t very fleshed out, they’re just fleshed out enough to engage with, and although the plot isn’t very original or coherent, it’s just original enough to be interesting and coherent enough to be satisfying, and although the jokes aren’t very funny and the emotive bits aren’t that emotive, they’re just funny and emotive enough to work.

That said, my enjoyment is no doubt partly due to having picked the right way to read it: while commuting. This isn’t ‘event’ reading, and building it up as that would undoubtedly lead to disappointment. As an easy, comfortable read to kill time and relax, however, something unchallenging enough not to stress frayed nerves yet sharp enough not to push the tired reader over into sleep or painful boredom, it’s perfectly judged.

There’s not really much point saying more about it, since I don’t think there’s much more to say.

Adrenaline: 2/5. There are exciting moments, and by and large it’s pacy enough to keep the reader engaged, but it is a little flabby (despite its brevity) and perhaps too light to really grip.

Emotion: 2/5. The characters aren’t complete ciphers, I suppose – but Green relies more on making things shocking than on making us care about the characters affected by those shocks.

Thought: 3/5. The slightly rambling plot, mystery elements, and an intriguing if ultimately shallow setting all keep the intellect interested.

Beauty: 3/5. *shrug*

Craft: 2/5. The prose is OK, but some of the dialogue is far too obvious – natural enough in isolation, but too railroaded by the form and plot as a whole. The plot construction is a bit of a mess, I think.

Endearingness: 2/5. Found it rather less likeable than its predecessor – less vivid characters, fewer interesting ideas, less sense of purpose. On the other hand, it’s readable enough, it’s amusing in places, and the two protagonists are likeable in an easy, comfortable way.

Originality: 3/5. Part of the upside to a messy plot is that it’s rather less derivative as a whole. On the other hand, it’s still composed entirely of reused tropes, albeit sometimes in new combinations.

Overall: 3/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. I feel a little cruel, calling this a bad book, largely because it does mostly what it sets out to do. But what it sets out to do isn’t very much. And looking at the broader picture of what I want these ratings to mean, I think this rating is fair: it’s a book that you probably won’t like, and probably shouldn’t like, unless you happen to particularly like this sort of book. Hawk and Fisher I might show to a non-fan as a non-embarrassing thing that they might find interesting, even if they didn’t really like it – Winner Takes All is probably only for its core market, and anyone else will be very unimpressed. But that’s not too much to be ashamed of, I don’t think. Not every book is meant to have universal appeal, or even to garner widespread appreciation. And I for one am glad there are books like Winner Takes All out there… especially when I’m commuting.

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.

Blue Moon Rising, by Simon Green

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.