|Illustration by Richard Anderson, |
design by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Orbit, 29 August 2018
I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance copy of Bloody Rose.
I can still remember the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D, 3rd edition). There were only two of us - me with half a dozen player characters and my friend, who was DM. The party makes its way down a set of stone steps into a room with a pile of straw in the middle. Several giant beetles are wandering around the straw. What do we do? I wondered. They seem like harmless creatures, and they aren't evil... a prompt from my DM friend: You attack them of course!
And therein lies the contradiction - and the wonderful moral heart - of Bloody Rose. The book is set in a world of mercenaries, wilderness, and monsters. Picking up from its predecessor, Kings of The Wyld, it features a society where the superstars are "bands", groups of mercenaries who go form city to city fighting "monsters" for glory (and gold). Deliberately, this setup is drawn as similar to that of touring rockstars in the 80s. The bad behaviour. The drink and drugs. The sex. The bands have extravagant names and larger than life members, and they tour in "argosies", enormous wagons fitted out with every modern convenience. Eames has a great deal of fun making these comparisons and including real names and echoes of actual rock heroes, at least in the supporting cast (for example, the purple veiled Prince of Ut; and look at the some of the namecheck in the final battle). I don't think Fable, the band on home the story focuses, is based on anyone specific although the components are all there - from the dodgy manager to the sexy dealers who hang around to the smashing of instruments.
But also, of course, there is slaughter and death on the tour. In Kings of the Wyld we saw less of this - Saga where an older band who'd got together and who'd grown up fighting for their lives in the wilds. They saw the killing of captive monsters in stadiums as pretty abhorrent and the story didn't focus too hard on it, soon breaking out to more traditional fantasy terrain with a terrifying, monstrous Horde in the field.
In Bloody Rose, Eames spends much more time on this morally dubious issue - basically the same as I had with those AD&D dung beetles all those years ago - and also explores the consequences. Who are the monsters really? What happens when you try on a different nature and find yourself changing to fit? This is a point he comes at again and again from different directions - from the shapeshifter Brun to Tam, who wants to be a bard, to Rose herself.
Rose - Bloody Rose. The most kick-ass hero I've come across in a long, long time. The driving force behind Fable, Rose featured in Kings too though that book was more about the quest of her father and his old bandmates to rescue her. Here she's centre stage, and we see the consequences of that "rescue" - both for her and for the wider world of Grandual. Very much taking aim at the "woman as motivation for the quest" trope in fantasy, Eames makes sure we see Rose as a thoroughly active character in her own right, viewing her through the eyes newbie teenager Tam Hashford who, against her father's wishes, joins away to join the mercs, her head fall of glory and fame.
The book is very much an account of Tam's growth and maturing shows how her childhood dreams fall away. Setting out to follow her Wyld Heart, she joins Rose's band and is plunged into a terrifying series of areas fights, battles, quests - as well as the emotional pressure cooker of touring. Together Tam and Rose are the two pillars which support this story, though there is a wide cast of additional characters including some from Kings (I can reveal without being too spoilery that Arcandius Moog makes an appearance too).
The book has violence, comedy, warfare, comradeship, violence, heroism, loss, violence and, at its heart, a real, beating moral heart. We don't just see amorphous evil (though there is some of that), the antagonists here have real motives, whether revenge, survival or simple fear. ("You didn't get to be the villain of one story unless you were the hero of another.") It also doesn't spare us the aftereffects of combat, and there are plenty of alternative viewpoints to the death-or-glory swagger of the mercs (which is itself, we soon release, often an assumed pose). Eames' world is also determinedly, transparently diverse (Tam is gay; Rose leads her band of mercy; in the old stories that are cited "at the conclusion... the knight and her dragon would fly off together into the sunset).
Eames' writing also crackles. ("Some people know how to kill a conversation. Cora, on the other hand, could make it wish it had never been born") ("...another broken thing with an aching song to sing"). It's the kind of book whose pages simply fly by until, like those teenage D&D sessions, you look up and it's well past midnight and you're in a torchlit cave surrounded by orcs and you don't want to leave...
In short - while Kings of the Wyld was a terrific book, Bloody Rose is even better. It is simply a masterpiece - exciting, complex, true, sad (in a couple of places, very, VERY sad) - both a deeply traditional fantasy and at the same time, something that knocks all those dusty tropes over and gives them a good kicking (with steel toed boots).
You know what to do next!