Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Brass God - K.M. McKinley

The Brass God is the third in K.M. McKinley’s ‘The Gates of the World’ fantasy series.  It’s a lavish production, one which spills over a vast geography which manages to contain both a sprawling cast and some complex, intriguing ideas.

We’ve seen aspects of McKinley’s world before, but are breaking new ground here. Specifically, we enter the land of the Modalmen. These individuals appear monstrosities – huge, four armed and also heavily armed, they’re terrors to strike fear in the hearts of any man, spectres that appear out of the dark of night, burn, pillage, and disappear. But they do, it seems, live somewhere – on the edges of civilisation. McKinley shows us these desolate barrens, stark winds hurrying through a land whose sterility hints at past atrocities. It evokes a sense of being a small part of a greater whole, a loneliness that lies beneath the camaraderie and tribalism of the Modalmen. Though they can be monstrous, they are not monsters – and looking at their world, at the trappings of technology and magic which bind them to their lives, that feeling of loneliness seeps off the page and gets under the skin.  The soaring, broken towers of the Modalmen, the pride and anguish of artifice gone awry, is by no means the only piece of the world on display, but it’s certainly the most startling, the bleakest, and the one which carries such a grandiose sense of wonder and ruin wrapped around it like a once-fine tattered shawl. As with the previous books though, there’s a lot more to see. There’s delightful sections centred on arctic exploration and survival, skating away from a larger threat. It’s a start contrast to the stony plains of the Modalmen, a sweeping vista of ice, where the real antagonist is cold and desolation. But there’s also thriving cityscapes, horrifying institutions, and much more.

It’s difficult to overstate the scope and scale of this work. It’s densely packed with different points of view, each bringing a unique perspective to their situations. But those characters are embedded in a sprawling, vividly imagined world. It is a world, as well. Towering citadels and urban slums exist alongside the wilderness, but you can feel the pull of geography between them. There’s a sense that the story is taking place across vast distances – and not always physically.

The same is true of the cast of characters. This is the third book in the series, so they’re all fairly familiar by now, but gosh, there are a lot of them. It’s to the author’s credit that, focusing on a large group of siblings from one family, each seems to have their own voice and agency, and be distinctive from the others. It helps, of course, that they’re embedded in their own plotlines of course – an arctic explorer carrying a different mindset to a social reformer. You can see the passions and fears which drive these people, and they do feel like people. Individual, distinct and in some cases not overly pleasant people, but still. That the focus is there doesn’t mean there aren’t others worthy of mention; I particularly enjoyed the forceful aristocratic lady who was also an unapologetic scientist and rake. If I have any complaint it’s that the mosaic of these characters and their stories on the quilt of the world are a lot to take in at once. Still, once you’re caught up on who’s doing what and why, the story absolutely powers along, with the sheer amount of characters and locales building an elaborate and fantastically plausible world.

The story – well, it’s the third part of a series, so no spoilers. But it begins with a slow burn, drawing the reader back into the mysteries and histories which sit at the core of the narrative. There’s a lot of the unrevealed and arcane about it, and that mystery and the slowly dawning sense of revelation kept me turning pages. That wasn’t all of course – there are gods, some seriously impressive and pyrotechnic magic, as well as some startling character revelations and kinetically explosive fight scenes. It is, in short, a book which will make you want to keep reading, to know what happens next, to delve into the detail and tease out the mysteries hidden behind the text. This is an impressively layered, thoughtful work, and one which is likely to reward more than one reading – but it does also reward that first reading, laying out high stakes for our protagonists, and giving them the sort of emotional depth which makes you care whether they win or lose.

I’d say if you’re coming to this fresh, go back and start at the beginning of the series; there’s some assumed knowledge here, and it would be easy to miss things if you’ve not read the rest of the series. That said, once you’re caught up, this is a worthy successor to previous volumes, and a genuinely epic work of fantasy.

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