Monday, November 30, 2009

Andy Remic's Use of Pastiche in Kell's Legend

Kell's Legend is Book I of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles and Andy Remic's sixth novel. Andy Remic sees himself as one of the successors to the Dave Gemmell tradition and, in one interview, talks about meeting Gemmell, his admiration of the writer, and his ultimate friendship with the man. The novel has recently been nominated by Angry Robot for the prestigious Dave Gemmell award.

To appreciate fully Kell's Legend we must first look at the rhetorical device of pastiche and its use and efficacy in science fiction and fantasy,examine the schism which exists between the heroic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien and that of Michael Moorcock, and then decide whether Remic accomplished his goal--to compose the Gemmell itself.

Even though, Andy Remic acknowledges his gratitude to and admiration of the works of Dave Gemmell, Kell's Legend demonstrates a firmer grounding in the American pulp fiction of the fifties, filtered through the work of Dave Gemmell but ultimately derived from Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Jules Verne, and Robert Howard.

Pastiche is a novel, poem, or painting that incorporates several different styles or is made up of parts drawn from a variety of sources. With this definition in mind, it is safe to say that nearly every fantasy novel is a "pastiche." Every science fiction author or fantasy writer has borrowed heavily not only from the writers that preceded him or her but from myths, legends, fairy tales, sagas, ballads, and history. It is the nature of the beast to borrow and incorporate the themes of the cultural Geist(socius) that swirls within the genre. However, in the case of Kell's Legend, Andy Remic has consciously acknowledged that he is writing a pastiche and that he owes and admires several specific practitioners of heroic fantasy. Through his acknowledgment, adoption, and amalgamation of their styles, themes, images, and even syntax he pays homage and creates pastiche; the result is a creation of something new, startling, crude, and iconoclastic. In many way his narrative is like one of the clockwork beasts that stalk his protagonists--the cankers. The text is chaotic, Dionysian, and drenched in literary testosterone. It is visceral, angry, mean-spirited, and exciting.

The conclusion, then, is that through his use of pastiche Remic has consciously or unconsciously contributed something new to heroic fantasy and widened the split that exists in heroic fantasy between the followers of Moorcock on one hand and the fans of Tolkien on the other. The novel will have its enemies because it is not Tolkien-esque in its themes or obsessions.

Kell's Legend flows from the Moorcock vein and will ultimately widen the psychic split between the gnarled limbs of Tolkien and Moorcockian fantasy.

This schism is not Remic's doing, of course; it began with Moorcock and his gang back in the fifties but they weren't the perpetrators either; they were simply the followers of those other mad iconoclasts: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. Perhaps, Tolkien himself through his use of deep structure and underlying myth really caused the schism. Nevertheless, the split exists and continues to evolve; the two branches grow apart and one day they may have separate spaces on the bookshelf or in the library.

Pastiche, of course, has come to mean a use of variety of styles and sources to ridicule a particular genre. However, in Kell's Legend, Andy Remic has not chosen to use pastiche to ridicule but to praise or, at least, pay homage to one of his favorite heroic fantasy authors--Dave Gemmell. But a close reading of the text does not only reflect an homage or a wink at Gemmell: the book itself is replete with a resplendent adumbration of his favorite genre authors. This is evident through his use of theme, characters, and settings.

Remic's themes in Kell's Legend mirror those of Gemmell's "Druss" and "Waylander" series; more particularly, a flawed hero, under the influence of a daemon, weighs-in against an invading army to bolster the backbone of an out-manned out-classed innocent culture (cf Moorcock's Elric series). The protagonist is usually accompanied by a small group of professionals who are doomed to die with the hero. However, somewhere there is a deus ex machina moving the heroes across the board of fate. Additionally, Gemmell's novels are materialist and realist within the confines of the text. Although, the hero is sentimental and ultimately a moral soul, living by his own set of mores, he does the practical thing: he kills with impunity and battles wholeheartedly. Gemmell was an unabashed admirer of John Wayne and John Ford. His Druss and Waylander are, ultimately, Indian fighters. There is a literary strand in Gemmell that leads directly to James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales and Remic, by absorbing Gemmell, has tapped into that brutal and realistic strain of American Romanticism.

In Kell's Legend, Kell is an aging warrior, who lives in Jalder to be near his grand-daughter Nienna. From her perspective he seems to be a lonely but kind man, who is supporting her and paying for her education. Kell, however, has a blood-bond with a daemon and a history that includes murder, mayhem, alcoholism, valor and adventure. He is not a Tolkien-esque character; he falls squarely in the Moorcock camp of flawed heroes. The other main characters include Nienna, the granddaughter, Saark the thief and rogue, and Illanna, the daemon in the ax. In that Kell is like Druss, Saark is like Sieben in The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend, and Illana like Snaga, the resonance with Gemmell is evident and palpable.

The characters and themes are played and moved across a grand landscape; and, within that world, the sides are aligned. To the north, lie the home of the clockwork vampires; to the south Falanor. In between lies the mysterious and magical Black Pike Mountains, home of the insidious and odious engineers.

It is in his creation of the north that Remic shines. Here the clockwork vampires reside. These creatures seem new to me and non-derivative; however, even here there is a sort of pastiche. On one hand there is a definite wink to the Death Dealers of Harry Potter and to the steampunk novels of Tim Powers, S. M. Peters, and Jules Verne; and on the other there is a similarity to the sado-masochistic vampire novels that clog the fantasy and horror shelves of Barnes & Noble. Nevertheless, in Remic's hands, his most vivid characters emerge from the north: Anukis, the clockwork vampire, Graal, the general of the albino vampire army, the cankers, destructive clockwork monsters that are reminiscent of the Black Library's chaotic beasts, the Elric-like albino army, and the Engineers.

Within this fantastic world, the two forces collide and within that collision lies a quest. The quest, of course, will take us to the underworld.

So, in conclusion, Kell's Legend is an iconoclastic melange of themes that incorporates devices from various genres--Moorcock/Gemmell heroic fantasy, steampunk, and horror. It is an exciting, brutal novel, soaked in testosterone and paced like a roller coaster. The sex and violence is visceral and the action is non-stop. It is not your grandpa's heroic fantasy; it is something else: cruder, rougher, more violent, realistic and materialistic. In other words, it will be addictive to the modern reader with a taste for Moorcockian fantasy.

I want to close with an address to those who are criticizing Remic for not being Gemmell or trying to be like Gemmell. First of all, all writing is pastiche. Remic, like Babe Ruth, signaled to the reader where he intended to go--straight to Gemmell country. He then hit the ball:a scorching line drive to center field. Whether it is a home-run depends on the subsequent book; however, he is definitely a player to watch and read. I imagine him scurrying around second base, heading toward home, yelling obscenities like a banshee, and peeing his pants with glee. Second, any material in the hands of another is going to be different. As Borges said in Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote, "he did not want to compose another Quixote--which is easy--but the Quixote itself." To paraphrase, Remic did not want to compose another Gemmell; he wants to compose the Gemmell--the work--he loves--itself. It will be different from Gemmell but it certainly seems Gemmell-like. And that is a good thing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quaternity in the Works of Dan Abnett

He is bounden to beleue in ye trinite. And ye felowe beleueth in a quaternitie: Sir Thomas More

Dan Abnett's "Blood Pact" is the twelfth novel in his Gaunt's Ghost series and, in my mind, his most intimate investigation into the psyche of Gaunt. For the nervous, superstitious, conspiratorial among you, let's add another "Double Eagle," to make the series contain thirteen.

So there are thirteen novels in the series to date. However, Mr. Abnett tends to write quaternities with a single over-arching arc, so that brings us to two completed quaternities, a trilogy, and two extras--"Blood Pact," and "Double Eagle." Of these two, one is hors série--"Double Eagle"--and the other, "Blood Pact" is the beginning of a new quarternity.

The last quaternity began with the novel,"Traitor General" and ended with "Only in Death." In "Traitor General" an Imperial General, who is condemned to death, is captured (rescued)by the Chaos equivalent of the Imperial Guard--the Blood Pact--and taken to the planet Gereon. Gaunt and a select team travel to Gereon to assassinate the general.

Gereon is one of Abnett's greatest creations. It is here that Abnett begins to show what happens to a planet that is conquered by Chaos. Of course, we have seen the images of conquered planets before through the battles but we have not seen the day-to-day existence of those who live under the rule of Chaos before nor have we seen the chain of command of Chaos or its administrative echelons to the degree that we now do.

In "Traitor General,' Abnett begins a descent into detail and world-building that he carries through to the last book in the quaternity--"Only in Death." The third quaternity now called the "The Lost," contains some of the best writing that Abnett has done. Not only does he envision several remarkable worlds but he creates languages and cultures in way that would make Ursula K. LeGuin smile. He also begins to transform Gaunt.

To be true to the Aristotelian verities Gaunt must grow and change. In that Abnett has an almost limitless space in which to develop his story arc, the changes are slow. At book eleven, we reach the tale-tell sign of conversion--blindness. Book eleven is the pivot; the book of changes. The story must change and in "Blood Pact" it does.

"Blood Pact" is a different type of book than the others. Of course, it contains all the usual suspects; however, it is smaller in scope. This novel begins two years after the horrendous battles on Jago. The Ghosts are on Balhaut, an important location for Gaunt. This is where it all began, where things went bad for Gaunt. In fact, the people of Balhaut celebrate the bravery of the "dead" hero Gaunt. So, in effect, Gaunt is a ghost of sorts. Abnett is telling us that before "Blood Pact" Gaunt was a ghost, lost in the campaigns and blind to his greater role. Now, in this new quaternity, things are changing; Gaunt can see again; and, as is usually the case, in this most literary of tropes, Gaunt can see what other men cannot. He has a second sight. He sees the future and he sees into others.

The plot of "Blood Pact," revolves around a "pheguth," a traitor, just as "Traitor General" revolved around a "pheguth." This time, however, the "pheguth" is a member of the Blood Pact, and unlike Sturm, the traitor general, Mabbon is a good man or at least that is what we are told.

A Blood Pact unit, along with a warp witch, is sent to Balhaut, like Gaunt was sent to Gereon, to assassinate the pheguth. So the plot focuses on a battle between a small specialized force of Chaos assassins and Gaunt. Because the battle field is small and intimate, the novel feels different; and it is different in some fundamental ways. It does not have the sweeping battles of "The Lost Quaternity;" however, it does set the ground for the next arc and it continues to enflesh the series with new themes and revealed characteristics of the major characters. It also foreshadows the death of several characters and points to a Gaunt reborn with an enhanced reputation among his commanders.

The series has always been dialectical: good versus evil; light verses dark; twins--Rawne verses Gaunt; Blood Pact versus Ghosts--and Chaos versus Order. However, Abnett is the most material of the Black Library writers; he does not go easily into the horrible wastes of the warp. However, with Blood Pact he seems to be saying--all right--there is something supernatural out there and now I see it. With Maggs and his visions of the old dam and Gaunt's pre-conscious sight, Abnett is leaving his material universe and stepping over into the world of Chaos. Is he tainted or is he able to mediate between the forces of good and evil? And, of course, there is always that ultimate question: what is the good?

So, in conclusion, "Blood Pact," is an intimate transitional novel, focusing on Gaunt, his past, and his present. It also further develops the character and humanity of the forces of Chaos and through this enfleshment ennobles them to an extent not seen before in Abnett's work. This ennoblement then deepens the themes and enriches the texts that have preceded the novel. For instance, when we read "Double Eagle," and we read of the dog fights between the Blood Pact pilots and the Imperial pilots, we can now imagine them as corrupt but human, both brave and ruthless.