I have loved this book for a fairly long time now, but have not re-read it in a rather long time, leading to some sweating over the possibility of the Suck Fairy waving her wand. Fortunately, overall that was an unnecessary concern…
This is still a rollicking fun adventure story. Pirates! Evil! Rescues! Fights! Sailing ships!!
I still adore the concept of ships that can set off at dawn or dusk into the cloud archipelago, and that places exist in both the Core and the Rim. That is, places exist in what we understand as the ‘real’ world, but those places with long histories especially of trade and contact with the exotic, and thus I guess have a firm grip on the imagination, can exist… outside of the mundane. And this applies to imaginary places as well as real – so Prester John gets a mention, and there’s one rather awesome place I remember from one of the later books too. Rohan goes so far as to discuss and explain why this Rim world uses old-fashioned weapons, too, which shows that he’s put a deal of thought into it.
I like the characters, mostly. I still love Mall – apparently based somewhat on a real woman attested by occasional mentions in historical records – I love that she is fierce and independent and a superb fighter and a passionate friend. Jyp is still amusing, although seemed a bit… shallower this time around? That is, not as well-rounded as I seem to recall. Maybe he gets more interesting in the later books. And Le Stryge, a rather unpleasant magicky type, is magnificent. If chaotic neutral is allowed to swing towards evil and then towards good, that’s him.
And then there’s Stephen, our Point of View. I was intrigued to discover that I found him more interesting this time around, and not because I found him any deeper – exactly the opposite. There is less to him, especially initially, and that is indeed the point of the entire book. He’s hollow. He’s forced other people out of his life, he’s marginalised meaningful human contact, to progress his career – and he’s made to confront that as the story progresses. And while Stephen is an extreme example, I think it’s fair to say that Scott is taking a shot at a whole section of society who have sacrificed love, family, imagination and dreams on the altar of Getting Ahead.
The Bad, or at least The Less Good
There are two aspects that left me somewhat uncomfortable. One to do with gender/sexuality, the other to do with race.
In the first few chapters, Stephen is presented as almost Mad Men-esque in his approach to women. His descriptions of them are physical, and while not entirely callous he does call his secretary ‘girl’ and his gaze lingers long on boobs. However, this is not entirely approved by the narrative. In fact, his approach to sex and love is very definitely seen as part of his nature as nearing hollow-man status, and this disappoints a number of characters whom the story sets up as moral compasses. So that’s an interesting take. Additionally, there is a moment where a female character has a lesbian smooch and Stephen is aghast, and clearly suggests this is not a normal thing to do. Now, it does get written off as shock, this-isn’t-really-real, but one of the other characters has no adverse reaction to the kiss, and in fact makes Stephen feel pretty small and pathetic for the way he reacted. So, not entirely positive, but also not entirely negative. Which is better than entirely negative, I suppose?
Also, one of the women is damsel’d pretty early on. On the other hand, there’s Mall.
The racial aspect comes in with the voodoo aspect. There’s always an issue when a white writer uses a non-white religious/magical/ etc system to their own ends, especially when those ends are not entirely good. Now, Rohan does suggest through the story that the original positive aspects of the African/Carib beliefs have been twisted beyond recognition, and by a colonial desiring power at that, but there is no denying that this book essentially sets up Haitian voodoo as the Big Evil to be combatted. I’m not sure how to grapple with that, except that it made me somewhat uncomfortable to read such appropriation – even when Rohan shows every sign, here and elsewhere, of appropriating other religious systems just as wholesale, to his own ends. So at least he’s not limiting himself to non-whites? Also, voodoo is shown not to be entirely evil, which I guess is also something of a redeeming feature. Not entirely, but a little bit.
I still like it. I will read the sequels at some point in the near future. Hooray.