Thursday, February 25, 2016

Snakewood - Adrian Selby

Snakewood is Adrian Selby’s debut novel; despite some rough patches, it’s a vividly imaginative work. There’s some memorable, complex characters, a sprawling, elaborate world, and a plot that feels something like The Count of Monte Cristo, but with rather a lot more murder. In short, this is good stuff, even if it could use a little smoothing out.

The narrative structure of the book switches between four main points of view, with incidental notes added by a fifth; it’s presented as a series of written accounts and papers left behind by the participants in the story, and each of the major points of view has a very distinct voice. One of the choices that the author makes is to drop the reader into a fast-paced, action-heavy point of view near the start; and whilst this works well, it’s surrounded by a thicket of new terminology, in a totally new world to the reader, with an authorial voice which is, itself, heavy with internal slang, and occasionally difficult to parse.  Embedding the reader in the world immediately can work well – but here, it felt like a bit of a struggle initially.
Having said that, after a few chapters, I got used to all of the different points of view and their different linguistic tricks and social assumptions, and the prose started to flow a lot better. Still, it felt as if the opening sections could have been more accessible.

Once it gets rolling, though, Selby’s story is a good one. The world is revealed in incidentals, as characters travel between one encounter and the next. There’s sweeping forest, flat plains, soaring mountains – and what felt like rather a lot of struggle with freezing snow. The smattering of detail we get is tantalising – there’s kingdoms rising and falling just out of shot, there’s trade guilds slowly building empires, and the threat of wildmen from the North. There’s even the odd mention of ‘magists’, which may or may not be magical in any way – and may or may not be legendary, or entirely fictional. Selby has a brilliant sense of place . Regardless of the point of view, his locations are crisply described, with enough detail to draw the reader in, but not enough to overwhelm – and each locale feels distinct and real.

Perhaps the oddest feature of this word is the ‘plant’ ; different mixes of vegetation can be created, brewed and imbibed to provide spectacular, super-normal effects. Warriors take ‘fightbrews’ before walking into combat, and have to deal with withdrawl afterward; weapons are routinely poisoned and highly lethal, and books of recipes are highly valuable. It’s a clever system, injecting a kind of physical magic into the world – one which carries both short and long term consequences for the user. Over the course of the text, more elaborate uses for the different brews, pastes and mixes are revealed – and it’s intriguing stuff.

The characters, sat within a world which seems to have a constant low level conflict, are all very well drawn. The text as a whole centres around members of ‘Kailen’s Twenty’ once a legendary band of mercenaries, now dispersed, retired, and, apparently, being murdered. Not all the narratives come from the Twenty, but it’s great to have some views here from men who are feeling old and more than a little broken, settled into one way of life or another – rather than the standard young Chosen One. The survivors of the Twenty have all been scarred by their actions in one way or another, and are, to put it mildly, not nice people. There’s no moral high road open here, and it’s to Selby’s credit that he creates characters who can be compellingly repulsive, and even draw the reader to empathise with them.

It’s not all unrelenting misery of course. There’s the occasional sparkling flash of humour, in amongst all of the revenge, plots and brutal murder. But the overall atmosphere is one of unabashed grimness. As individuals are struck down, on one side or another of the conflict, the tension ratchets up.  The question of who is performing killings and why, and where and who will they strike next is approached from different angles, and once over the initial hurdle, I found it very difficult indeed to stop reading.

Is it worth picking up? I’d say yes. The opening segment was a bit of a struggle, and you have to be ready to enter a dark world of vengeance and suffering before you start, but overall, this is a solid entry in the genre. There’s a fascinating world that I’d love to see more of, with some well realised characters inside a taut, exciting plot; so yes, it’s worth the time to read.

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