Monday, November 1, 2010

Gav Thorpe's "The Crown of the Blood"

Gav Thorpe, along with Paul Kearney, Stephen Pressfield and David Drake, writes war as it should be written: brutal, dark, bloody, treacherous, confusing, and insane. In The Crown of the Blood (Angry Robot 2010), his first independent novel, Thorpe breaks away from the Warhammer universe and paints his own created fantasy world with a broad brush, so broad in fact that at the end of the novel you feel as if you just began your exploration of the brutal and warring world, controlled, dominated, and threatened by the Empire of Askh.

This broad scope, of course, is what the epic fantasy reader wants and Thorpe sets up the pieces on the board to be played through what will either be a trilogy or a series of books. However, and this is important, in the setting up of his universe, through his own unique creation process, Thorpe employs and distorts the usual fantasy tropes (no elves, wizards or haflings here) to provide a somewhat familiar (but not really) psychological as well as realistic view of a bronze-age world at war, where magic is dark and dangerous--horrific really--and warfare is waged on an epic scale: tens of legions square off in gigantic set pieces involving hundreds of thousands of men across a universe. And the result is that Thorpe writes in a vein closer to Gemmell than Tolkien and, as a result, he seems less interested in the glory of the hero than in the psychological underpinning of the combatants, which provides a view of their inner workings and thereby making the novel seem harder, truer, and grave. The result of his method, of course, is a sense of weight, which is necessary for epic fantasy: epic fantasy must have a sense of psychological depth, as demonstrated through well-rounded characters,operating in a unique universe, and a sense of tragedy.

Thorpe provides the elements of tragedy through his depiction of the machinations of the Bloods: the members of the royal family who rule the Empire with the help and guidance of the Brotherhood, a cult of priests, who use alchemy and astrology to manipulate and control their fate. The chief protagonist, although I would argue that there are several because Thorpe uses multiple points of view to describe the workings of the Empire, is Ullsaard, a native of Enair and a young general, commanding several Askh Legions. It is Ullsaard whose arc provides the tragic theme of the novel and it is Ullsaard, who first demonstrates that Thorpe is not interested in providing us with a epic fantasy stereotype. Ullsaard is a complex man, full of pride and ambition, who, at times, is not particularly smart or honorable. It is his story that propels the plot but he is not always a hero or heroic. Sometimes he is pitiful, cowardly and vainglorious, asking others to do his dirty work or betraying life-long allies, even brothers. In fact, I would argue that there is no real "hero" in the novel; instead, Thorpe provides us with a myriad of flawed individuals, who blindly grope for power on various levels in a brutal world. However, Ullsaard, of course, carries the plot and it is his fortune that furnishes the exciting force of the novel and provides the elements of tragedy.

With tragedy comes complexity and Thorpe has arranged his novel to include characters from every stratum of the empire. In this, you can see either Tolkien's influence or Shakespeare's (take your pick). In fact, there is a beautiful scene near the end of the novel where one of the POV characters, Gelthius, opts out of raping and pillaging and decides to have a bit of drink, food, and sleep, instead. When the conquering Ullsaard enters the city, he finds the tipsy and drowsing Gelthius on the steps leading to the ramparts. The scene illustrates the common legionnaire interacting with the great general and brings to conclusion the multiple points of view approach that allowed us to see the working of the Legions. A nice touch to a book full of nice touches.

In the final analysis, a created world must have created beings; and, although Thorpe has avoided the usual fantasy tropes, he does provide us with some interesting creations: the officers of the legions ride giant cats called ailurs; the cavalry ride Kolubrids, large snake-like creatures; the warriors of Mekha ride reptilian creatures called behemodon; while slavers travel in landships, propelled by oarsmen. The sine qua non of fantasy tropes--the horse--is no where to be found. He also has created a unique social world, where polygamy is the norm, bastards of the Blood are hunted down by the Brotherhood; and debtor prisons common. The magic, too, is different, it seems based on human sacrifice, alchemy, and astrology.

All in all, the novel is well-written, with a complex plot that promises additional books, ruthless, fully-developed characters, and a penchant for psychological realism that makes the book an adult read rather than a childish escape.

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