Farlander by Col Buchanan
The Heart of the World, Book One
Published by TOR UK, March 2010.
ISBN: 978 0230 7448 13
This debut novel is another in a string of recent debuts. Like the others it is uneven, but there is enough charm for some readers to enjoy.
The setting is typical Fantasy fare. In a land known as The Heart of the World, The Mercian Free Ports are the last holdout from the Holy Empire of Mann. There, the besieged city of Bar-Khos protects the Free Ports from the masses of the Imperial Fourth Army along an isthmus through a series of walled defences. These are continually being knocked down in the siege and rebuilt.
To this we have our group of key characters. The main focus of the plot is on the farlander of the title. Ash is an old warrior who has returned to Bar-Khos. Suffering from headaches kept at bay by the regular chewing of dulce leaf, he realises that he needs an apprentice. To solve this problem comes Nico, a troubled teenager in gaol for stealing in the city. Soon he is apprenticed to Ash and begins training to be a Roshun, an assassin like Ash.
In an alternate plotline we have Nico’s uncle, Bahn and his family. As the masses of the Imperial Fourth Army surround the city, destroying its walls, the reluctant warrior is involved in both defending the walls underground as one of the Specials and as a chief aide for General Creed, the Lord Protector of Khos. He struggles to maintain his sanity and his family whilst following his duties.
The main enemies of the book are Sasheen, the Holy Matriarch of the Empire of Mann, and Kirkus, her son, whose demands and whims have no boundaries. It is for them that the Holy Empire of Mann fight.
Once the key characters are introduced, the tale rattles along pretty well. And, there’s a lot here to like. (What is there not to like about airships?)
Unfortunately, for me at first, every time I got to a point where I was enjoying the novel, something would try to put me off. There were a number of names that I could have done without:
The Holy Empire of Mann, for one. (Isle of Man readers, take note.)
Zanzahar, for another. And the Isles of Sky. (Isle of Skye readers, take note.)
A character called Da-Ran (must be the leader of the chavs….) or even Dalas. Let’s also mention Rianna, the slavegirl taken by Kirkus. Or how about a dog named Boon, Nico’s best friend (until Ash, anyway)?
Some of the concepts were also annoying in that I felt I’d encountered them before: for example, a religion called Daoism whose centre is in a place called Honshu? (Chinese and Japanese readers please take note.)
Someone somewhere needs to let writers know that using real names and places as a substitute for Fantasy names and places can often deflate that fragile suspension of disbelief.
Consequently, these minor irritants soon became major obstacles for me. For most of the first half of the novel I was unfortunately noticing them and the joins in the plot more than enjoying the tale. With a growing feeling of ‘been here before, read it before’, I began to lose interest fast.
Pleasingly though, there was a point in the book about halfway through where things changed. The murder of Rianna by Kirkus, leads to a vendetta killing being instigated, as she was under protection of the Roshun. Ash and Nico, with Nico’s co-trainee friend Aleas and Ash’s uneasy colleague Barachas volunteer to take on the dangerous mission and avenge her death for the Roshun. The book, like Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold, becomes focussed as a tale of revenge.
Now with this impetus, the book kicked up a gear. Characters started to have meaning, the dialogue became less excruciating and the action scenes kept things moving along, as long as I didn’t think about things too much. (A lot of the problems in the book could’ve been solved by using airships, it seems to me, for one.)
Pleasingly, the ending of the book was not what I was expecting, after all the predictability of the previous plot. However it did raise questions in my mind about the actual purpose of what had gone before and whether the rest of the previous events were worth it.
The other issue I had, and I know will annoy some readers, is that the ending of the book is not an ending of the tale but simply a series of chapter setups for the next book in this series, which I understand will be a trilogy.
In summary: close but no cigar. Less cynical than Best Served Cold, better written than The Left Hand of God, this isn’t a particularly bad debut. There will be some, no doubt, who can cope with the poor choice of names and the predictability of the plot better than I could and actually enjoy this one more.
I do think there’s a good book in here trying to get out, but there’s a lot to put up with in order to enjoy. Better at the end but still not the best debut I’ve read this year.
First chapter extract here: http://g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/02/uk-books/images/FarlanderExtract.pdf
Mark Yon, March 2010