The Wanderer’s Tale by David Bilsborough
Published by TOR, July 2007
448 pages (ARC copy is 678 pages)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit, based on ARC copy.
You know, after you’ve been reviewing books for a while, it can become easy to take books for granted. Don’t get me wrong: I still get a thrill when the next book appears from a well known author, or an author less well known but I really like; I still enjoy reading new books from new authors – ones that you read and think: ‘This is a great book: how wonderful it is to be here at the start of what will hopefully be a long and profitable career.’
But then there are the disappointments – the ones that are not as good as you hope, the ones that take up your valuable (and finite) reading time, the ones where you soldier through, when you know you’ve got other ‘good stuff’ waiting, hoping that it might – just might – get right by the end. But doesn’t.
The Wanderer’s Tale is a fat fantasy of a novel. It is the debut novel of the author, and has, according to the publisher, taken something like twelve years to write. It is sadly the most difficult book I’ve had in a long time to finish.
So what did I not like about it?
Firstly, there were issues with names. Now, I can take names in SF & Fantasy novels with a certain degree of disbelief - you have to, as part of the game – but some authors use names that are just distracting. Some place-names and people-names create a feeling of mystique and majesty, that add to the atmosphere of the book, whilst others don’t. Bilsborough falls into this one straight away.
In this book we have characters named Bolldhe (try saying that one aloud, to get the true meaning of the horror), a young naïve esquire called Gapp, a resurrected demigod of evil called Drauglir, (for which Bram must be gritting his teeth in agony), a giant called Klijjver (introduced by the statement, “Meet Klijjver!”) and let’s not forget the armourer Kuw (Ian Fleming has just received another blow.) Such names, believed to be humorous or clever, do little but to alienate the reader from the carefully crafted suspension of disbelief. (There are exceptions: Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde manage this supremely well, for example, though the exceptions for me are very few.) These did not work for me.
However despite that, I stuck with it. It is a debut novel, after all. It might get better, I said. Unfortunately it did not.
Secondly, the plot fails to raise itself from the clichés of Fantasy novels that were churned out in large quantities in the post-Shannara boom of the late 1970’s and ‘80’s. We basically have, as the title suggests, a Traveller’s Tale, the tale of the aforementioned Bolldhe: except that it is not a traveller, but a motley crew of travellers sent on a quest to destroy the also aforementioned badguy, Drauglir, servant of Olchor.
So we have the quest cliché: not always a bad thing, but difficult these days to produce skilfully. Bilsborough fails to deliver on this aspect by sticking to archetypes that do little to go beyond the usual. Here, in our band of merry men, we have the Eight: made up of Bolldhe and Gapp Radnar (mentioned previously), we also have Nibulus Wintus, an inexperienced warrior-knight looking to prove his worth, his friend desert warrior Methuselech Xilvafloese, Paulus Flatulus, the older but annoyingly grumpy older mentor, the shamanistic Wodeman and lastly, the aged cleric Appa & the young Elldryc, the religious oracles who also perform magic. Every Dungeons and Dragons fan by this point will realise the convenience of this grouping.
However, it’s not the first time a writer has used these tropes, I thought. Sometimes sparkling dialogue and intelligent plotting can make the book rise above its mundane-sounding précis. However, the dialog here does little to support this creaking plot. Sentences are predictable and jarringly at odds with the sense of disbelief I had hoped to create whilst immersing myself in the imaginary land of Lindormyn. Characters shout statements like (page 47) 'In fact, let's get p*ssed!', Shogg’s Arse! And ‘you little prat!’ Others in an inn order a bag of nuts with a pint of real ale. Sometimes, such comments and actions can subtly create a much needed degree of normalcy in a fantastical setting. Here they just read as crass and dissonantly inconsistent.
In terms of plot, the story is far too long and overwritten, yet at the same time clunky and stodgy. Pacing, narrative structure; all seem to be thrown together unhomogenised into the mix, without too much care or thought. Some chapters are 35+ pages long, others 10. The band of brothers doesn’t even leave on their quest until page 135. Some chapters follow on from each other, whilst others inelegantly don’t. Plot developments happen, for then to be left dangling for over a hundred pages whilst the story follows another aspect. (In fact, that particular development is left until the next book.)
Most worryingly, events happen without sensible internal logic: for example, a giant saves one of the key characters of the book for him to then be ignored as something of little interest, but then, later in the book, the giant, (clearly having a sudden memory flash), rushes off to find the key character when he goes missing. One of the key characters, having being knocked down a deep well, swept along in an underground river, entombed in a cave and being chased and attacked by a number of horrible creatures, still manages for most of this time to keep his spectacles on.
By three-quarters of the way through the book I was struggling to keep my interest. After characters had walked, walked and walked, been lost and found and then lost again, I was losing my determination to stay with it. Bilsborough drives home his points with the subtlety of a housebrick – to show a place that is really bad, he has a puppy having its eyes pecked out by birds and a dead baby abandoned on the street. A more restrained writer could have made that (and other) points without labouring the matter.
There were glimmers of hope here and there: the many unusual races of creatures that appeared were at times appealing, and some of the places visited gave hints at a varied and attractive world, though these were not always used to their best advantage. Unfortunately Bilsborough’s writing inexperience means that we get very lengthy descriptions of landscape and environment, lasting over pages, in places where the narrative needs more drive (or at least a little more editing.)
Regrettably by the end, as much as I had wanted initially to like this book, the obstacles created in the book far outweighed any hope of positivity I had anticipated. The book ends at a point from which the next book can start. My last straw was on the penultimate page, which used a line of speech taken from a Rolf Harris song lyric.
For someone perhaps new to the genre, this book might be acceptable. However, my overriding feeling on finishing was that the book could have been written a decade ago; it does not show anything like the smoothness of prose or plot shown by established writers such as Wolfe, Williams, and Hobb, never mind the style and intelligence of newer writers such as Rothfuss, Lynch or Abercrombie. If Bilsborough wishes to make any progress in writing as a career he needs to at least have an idea of the standard set by other genre authors around him.
If I was trying to encourage someone new to read the genre, or suggest something of quality to a person who was rather disparaging of everything good that modern Fantasy can be, this would be the book I would hide far, far away and move them quickly towards others on my shelf. Very disappointing.
Mark Yon, May 2007.
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