9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Looking at the cover of The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a western. The simple but striking image of a steamboat certainly suggests that the story will follow a very specific direction. In what I can only apologise for being a slightly confounding statement, you would be both right and wrong for thinking along those lines. There is little denying that the latest from Jacobs proudly wears its Western roots on its sleeve, but there is also far more to it than that. It quickly becomes evident, after only a handful of pages, that this novel is a veritable mash-up of genres each vying for the reader’s attention in a wonderfully complex but entertaining tale.
This is a deceptive book. At first glance it doesn’t appear to be that big but there is actually a heck of a lot going on here. I’m not quite sure how he has pulled it off but Mr Hornor Jacobs has written what feels like the literary equivalent of the TARDIS, once you open the book you’ll realise that it is much, much bigger on the inside. Let’s see if I can explain. Try to imagine a world where an imperial force, not massively dissimilar to the Roman Empire (let’s call them Rumans for the sake of argument) is rubbing shoulders with men who could best be viewed as cowboys. Also along for the ride are half men known as dvergar (dwarves) and savage tribal warriors called vaettir,who could be seen as a nod to both native American Indians and elves. Elsewhere, there are also demons, imps and a host of other potential enemies, including a race of humans that sounds suspiciously like the Japanese Shogunate. Told you there was a lot going on, didn’t I?
Amidst all these various groups, we find the slightly mis-matched pairing of Fisk and Shoe. The former is a taciturn pistolero with an enigmatic past, your typical western gunslinger type. The latter is a long-lived half-blood dvergar caught between the two different races of his birth. They are both just trying to survive and do what needs doing to get their jobs done, but it seems that they are beset on all sides. Of the two, Shoe is certainly more personable, ironic as he is only half-human, but both bring their own unique abilities to the mix. What Fisk lacks in communications skills, he more than makes up for in action. I was pleased to discover later in the novel that some of Fisk’s murky past does in fact get explained, I’m not a huge fan of characters remaining enigmatic for the entirety of a whole book. I do suspect however, that there are still some things that have not yet been revealed about them both.
Most of action takes place in and around the aforementioned steamboat, The Cornelian, while it travels along the Big Rill, a river in the middle of nowhere. Jacobs is a sneaky old so and so. Even though the plot occurs miles from anything resembling civilization, he still manages to inject a whole host of tantalizing hints and tidbits regarding his world building. My personal favourite being the idea that Ruman technology has evolved and is driven by the presence of demonic forces that are bound into servitude by engineers. It’s a nicely skewed vision of the traditional take on a wizard. Hellfire bullets are also a very cool concept*
In a bold move, the writing doesn’t shy away from what some would consider more controversial subjects. Attitudes towards race are tackled head on and play an important part in almost every interaction. The Rumans consider themselves superior to everyone so non-Rumans harbour an ill-hidden resentment toward them. On top of that the human’s attitudes towards non-humans, the dvergar and the vaettir in particular, is also distinctly superior. There is also an insightful exploration of how the different genders are treated and viewed out in the frontier lands. One thread of the narrative follows a character called Livia Cornelius and tackles some of these issues specifically. The further she moves away from the rules imposed by society and the controlling heart of the Ruman Empire the more you see her real personality emerge.
As I mentioned before, The Incorruptibles isn’t just a Western, and it isn’t just a fantasy novel either. There are even a handful of moments where the plot gets close to being full blown, bloody horror. Just wait until you meet the Crimson Man! Now don’t panic, I know what you’re thinking, you’re concerned this is might just an excuse for genre bingo. Don’t worry, it’s not. Jacobs know exactly what he is doing, where the story is going, and he blends all these seemingly disparate elements together with real skill.
I like fantasy a great deal, but what I love more is when an author takes traditional fantasy tropes picks them apart and then rebuilds them, redefining them as they go. I want to read fantasy fiction that messes with my preconceived notions and throws me the odd curve ball or two. With The Incorruptibles, it feels like John Hornor Jacobs has done just that. I can only hope that there will be further books set in this world as it strikes me there is much left still to explore. Hopefully more Gooseberry**
The Incorruptibles is published by Gollancz and is available now. This is definitely one of my favourite reads so far in 2014.
*No, I’m not telling you why. Go and read the book and you’ll find out.
** Nope, I’m not explaining this one either :)
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 September 2014
I have recently avoided novels in favour of short story collections. (Short attention span and all that). However, this author has restored my confidence with his excellent 'Southern Gods' (wish I had come up with that storyline) and now this utterly enjoyable page-turner. Other reviews have outlined the story, and much better than I ever could, but suffice to say, this is a real action-packed caper full of gunplay, romance, demonology, blood and guts.All you could want, really. What really makes it special though, are the very strong characters.Some sightly flawed, others beyond hope, and there are the stretchers; an amazing race of creatures that rival the Alien for sheer terror.So, imagine Cormac Mcarthy re-writing 'Blood Meridian' set in a mythical land where gunfighters are really centurions, demons are harnessed to power transport and balistics, and anything can happen. Buy this great book.
Take a couple of pinches of Westerns, a pinch of Romans, a pinch of steampunk and a smattering of touches of other genres and you sort-of get the wonderfully imaginative new world that John Hornor Jacobs has created for the first in a planned trilogy, The Incorruptibles.
Wonderfully imaginative, save in one respect: with the strong echo of Westerns, it's not hard to see which group of characters has the role of Indians - and in that displays some of the most cliched derogatory stereotypes from the Western genre. Without the Western influence, having bad guys who mutilate the heads of opponents, abduct babies and the like would probably pass without notice, but with the Western influence it's hard to see these as other than caricatures of Native Americans which are best left in the past. (To his credit, John Hornor Jacobs has responded to another reviewer making a similar point; it's well worth reading the exchange: http://amzn.to/1IpcdW3)
The novel also feels at parts rather like a scene setting first book in a trilogy - which of course it is, but in setting the scene for large parts of the book there is not that much of an overall plot driving events along at a pace. There certainly is by the closing parts of the book, and there are lots of incidents earlier on, but overall the pacing didn't feel quite right.
What did though was the depth of the imaginary - and very imaginative - world, so there is plenty more for the rest of the trilogy to explore and expand on. This isn't a case of a one-trick setting which quickly wears thin.
Rather the story of the 'steam boat' headed into dangerous territory with a mix of politicians and 'cowboys' on board is richly imagined and refreshingly original.
Fans of audio books have a particular treat in store as narrator Steven Pacey (yes, the Steven Pacey who played Tarrant in Blake's 7) is quite brilliant, making the individual characters easy to distinguish with his different accents and injecting a huge sense of drama at key points with a lovely sense of timing and change of tones at just the right moments.
on 13 May 2015
This novel was an enjoyable break from the mold regarding typical dwarves and eleven fantasy tropes. Here, the vaettir (elves) are a bunch of deranged psychopaths that are partial to a bit of baby eating. The dvergar (dwarves) however are a civilised people far from the Tolkien stereotype, who suffer racial prejudice from both humans and vaettir.
The world is an odd one, as though a mixture of the Roman empire and the American wild west, with plenty of real world references to those cultures. There's a nice steam-punky feel to it, but using the infernal flames of daemons in the stead of traditional fuels. On the whole it's quite an original world build.
Horner Jacob's prose is elegant, with a lovely flowing sensation that makes the book a joy to read. So, having thoroughly enjoyed the book, why do I not rate it at five stars? It's the ending. I personally found the last chapter to be a little weak, and worse, irrelevant. Had the story wound up in the penultimate chapter I suspect I would have rated it higher. But nevertheless, I would highly recommend this book to fans of China Meiville and the likes.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
"Time was, you could walk thousands of miles in this land without seeing another soul. The stretchers kept to themselves in their high reaches, dreaming their unfathomable dreams, and only came out to trade with us once in a blue moon."
I picked up this book by chance, and I'm mightily glad I did. It is a tremendously good book, absolutely one out of the box and one of the best books I've read this year without doubt.
The setting is a world where men and other races exist - not always harmoniously. The gods are old, but there are those who are not god-given - imps, daemons - their infernal alchemy mixes ill with some of the other races. In this world are two who make their home where they find it; Fisk and Shoe, two mercenaries, working as outriders accompanying the river voyage up the Big Rill of the boat of Gnaeus Saturnalius Cornlius, the Imperial Governor. Fisk, a man who carries a past with him, one that's so dark that even Shoe, his partner of ten years, doesn't know it. Shoe, a half-dvergar, half-man; long-lived, short in stature, big in heart, who refuses to risk damnation from daemonry.
These two find themselves mixed in a world where politics and greed go hand in hand, where daemonic alchemy and science mix awkwardly, where men live close to the land and risk dying every day, where the vaettir roam down from the White Mountains and kill without mercy or favour. Where the voyages of Imperial Governors are not always pleasure cruises, and where the fates of three Empires could rest on the shoulders of two uneasy mercenaries.
I was totally blown away by this book; this is a world unlike any other, yet there are, from the corner of your mind, thoughts of the Wild West, of the Roman Empire, of Spanish grandees, of old races, gods and devilry. The author has created this stunning landscape and populated it firstly with Fisk and Shoe, two characters who get under your skin and take you along on their journey. And what a journey; it's a rollercoaster of every emotion, bloody and brutal, yet utterly hopeful of some redemption.
This book is complete in itself, but has started a journey into a world I'd love to read more about. I'm delighted to find there is another book coming featuring Fisk and Shoe, Foreign Devils. I look forward to it immensely.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2014
A enjoyable read and feels like there is enough depth to pull something interesting out of the hat. I have to admit to being significantly concerned at the start that the "wild west meets Rome" thing would be too gimmicky; but the author does a great job of holding it together. Some interesting magical touches, and an engaging narrator take you on a relatively rapid ride, that quickly sucked me in.
My one note of concern is the portrayal of the "stretchers" and their obvious analogue to Native Americans in this Wild West backdrop. I found it genuinely difficult reading as the author confirmed some of the very worst real-world fictional atrocities and stereotypes that were propagated to dehumanise the Native Americans and turn the victims of genocide into criminals worthy of extermination (e.g. stealing and eating babies) .
I know this is fiction, fantastical fiction at that, and I don't believe the author is being deliberate here, and that he may have time in future books to show me that he is building a different take - but is it really OK to have your Native American stereotype stealing babies from plucky innocent settlers?
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
**I am grateful to Nudge for providing me with a free review copy. I was reading an uncorrected manuscript proof, so some details might differ from the published book.**
Fisk and Shoe are two mercenaries in the Hardscrabble Territories hired to protect the steamer Cornelian, along with its high-born Ruman patricians on board. Only gradually it emerges that Governor Cornelius and his four children are escorting a princess who is key to keeping the fragile peace between the Ruman Empire and the Kingdom of Mediera, who are both contesting land and mineral rights in the Territories, to the kingdom's embassy in Passasuego. After two ill-fated hunting parties things go from bad to worse when the princess absconds secretly in the night - and not alone. Fisk and Shoe set off after them, but eventually Fisk is forced to ride on alone, while Shoe returns to the steamer. When Fisk is again back at the Cornelian, he has a grisly tale to tell, and in order to trace the still-missing princess, he enters into a dangerous bargain. Fisk and Shoe, along with several other companions and a prisoner as an exchange for the princess, set out to find her and so prevent a war that looks increasingly likely.
Told in the first person by Shoe, or Shoestring, half-man half-dvergar, this imaginative and inventive tale about loyalty reads like a fantasy cocktail, with disparate ingredients mixed together that you wouldn't normally mention in the same breath, but which work all the same: there's references to Ancient Rome and Greece, complete with terminology used in everyday speech; daemons and imps, used as a power source in engines, lamps as well as guns; non-human indigenous creatures, some hostile to humans - like the vaettir - some friendlier - like the dvergar, though regarded with suspicion by humans and ill-treated - and there's also mention of dragons, though they don't actually make an appearance in this book. Shoestring is a natural-born storyteller, forced by his half-blood status to the edge of society, which has turned him into an astute observer and excellent judge of character. The whole novel, the first in a trilogy, exudes a real frontier feeling of adventure and physical and emotional hardship, though also the possibility to forge some long-lasting friend- and partnerships. The characters are well developed, both major and minor, and really grow on you, in particular Shoe. This foreign world is described in lovely prose, and the various settings are realised in exquisite detail, taking the reader from a rather sedate pace to the breathless terror of a vaettir attack without loss of credibility. I thought I detected strong undercurrents of a certain stance towards religion and modern technology (nuclear energy?), but other readers might disagree and this viewpoint is certainly not essential to the understanding and enjoyment of this novel. The reason I decided to give it only four stars is that, one, one or two questions remained unanswered and, two, that it is incredibly violent in places, with nothing left to the imagination; the last few chapters in particular are quite disturbing and make for a harrowing read, and have a nightmarish or fever-induced hallucinatory quality to them.
In short, this novel was a real surprise and must surely stand as one of the more original offerings in the fantasy genre. With such engaging characters, an interesting storyline and excellent world building, I'm already looking forward to the next offering.
Contains swearing and sexual references.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2014
This book was a real gem . I started it with no idea where it would lead me but was left wanting more .
The blending of the different genres was flawless - I know of no other book where Ancient Rome morphs into The Searchers with a strong fantasy noir foundation .
Read it you won't be disappointed
on 3 January 2015
A great story that's a combination of Roman(ish) history, the Wild West, Steampunk with a few traditional fantasy elements and daemons! Highly recommended.
on 9 October 2014
An entertaining blend of genres. Great fun!