Monday 9 April 2012

Guest Post | Stefan of Civilian Reader Reviews The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell

Stefan Fergus blogs with such alarming regularity that it makes the likes of little old me feel entirely inadequate, especially considering - and this is the kicker - that the consistency of his work never slips.

Like Ryan from Battle Hymns the other day, good sir Stefan reviews books by the bunch, but also quite a lot of comics, and with my renewed interest in the storytelling potential of sequential art, of late I've been looking to Civilian Reader even more often than I used to do. It has, I hardly need add, my heartiest recommendation. It's a blog of quantity and quality, and that's desperately rare in this day and age.

I've had my eye on the beautiful books Stefan discusses below since they were announced way back when, and though the kingly cost of the limited editions of The Alchemist and The Executioness put me off then, somehow or other I'd managed to miss the news that they were now available as nearly-free singles for the Kindle, and presumably other e-readers too. Thus, I am four pounds poorer, because of Stefan, but also substantially better prepared for this month in America.

Shall we get to the gosh-darned guest blog already? :)


"Magic has a price.

"In Khaim, that price is your head if you’re found using it. For the use of magic comes with a side effect: it creates bramble. The bramble is a creeping, choking menace that has covered majestic ancient cities, and felled civilizations. In order to prevent the spread of the bramble, many lose their heads to the cloaked executioners of Khaim.

"Tana is one of these executioners, taking the job over from her ailing father in secret, desperate to keep her family from starvation. But now her family has been captured by raiders, and taken to a foreign city.

"So Khaim’s only female executioner begins a quest to bring her family back together. A bloody quest that will change lives, cities, and even an entire land, forever. A quest that will create the legend of The Executioness." 

The Executioness is one of two novelettes set in this magic-infused fantasy world – the other is The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Every time a spell is cast a bit of bramble sprouts – tangling vines with thorns that threaten a poisonous sleep. It can sprout anywhere and everywhere. In the lands of Khaim, magic use has been too frequent, and whole swathes of the city are plagued by brambles – indeed, the rulers of the city are using magic to help in some urban planning (flagrantly ignoring their own law), which has caused the bramble to spread dangerously. The inhabitants do what they can to keep it at bay (burning, chopping), but it always comes back.

Tana’s father is one of the executioners called upon to mete out justice when an illegal magic-user is caught. At the start of The Executioness, he is too ill to serve, and when called upon Tana dons his outfit and goes in his stead. After doing her duty, her home is raided and her sons kidnapped. And so begins a long journey to recover her lost family – a journey blessed by unprecedented luck.

This is, at heart, the story of a warrior’s evolution. It’s a coming of age story of a very different sort. It doesn’t wholly work, given the short length, but it is certainly engaging. There are a couple of turning points in the story, which kickstart and accelerate Tana’s training and preparation for what she will ultimately have to do. At each point, she starts to think more strategically. In some ways, it feels a bit too sudden, her evolution from peasant butcher to warrior leader – the proper level of character development I think a story like this needs was never going to be possible in such a small word-count. That being said, for the purposes of the story, not to mention the length, it is an important and necessary development. In addition, I think that lengthening the story could have robbed it of some of its impact, even though some might have preferred greater attention to world-building and getting to know the characters better.

What world-building Buckell does give us is very well done, and conveyed in a natural way: it comes through Tana’s experiences and interactions with others (for example, the Roadmaster, who helped flesh out the world quite nicely), and because it’s so sparse, it never comes across as an info-dump. We do get to know Tana, especially during her training with Bojdan (which also gives us a look at the martial beliefs and traditions of the people – as well as a good field-guide of just how versatile the axe is as a weapon).

As mentioned above, Tana’s journey is blessed, and I think this is where my only complaint comes: the Legend of the Executioness was such a handy, powerful thing, and I think Buckell didn’t quite manage to make me believe that such a rumour could spread so far and wide in such a short amount of time. Especially since it’s so far from the truth – something Tana, at first, attempts to point out, but eventually drops after realising the psychological value of everyone incorrectly believing you to be a superior warrior. 

This is the first fiction I've ever read by Buckell, and I was impressed (but not surprised) by the quality of his prose, pacing and story. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, though. It’s got a lot of great, imaginative elements to it, and I can’t understand why he and Bacigalupi didn’t aim for longer pieces of fiction. (I’ve not heard any talk of more from this world coming out.) One thing I thought could have been explored more was the bramble itself – it’s a fantastic idea, but it occupies a strange place in this story: it is central to the motivations of the antagonists, while at the same time being quite a distant element of the actual plot.

The Executioness is well worth its small cost, and I look forward to reviewing Paolo Bacigalupi’s contribution over on Civilian Reader in the next couple of weeks. I would be interested in reading more stories set in this world, as I think it’s got a lot of potential still to be explored. This is a good story, but I think it could nevertheless have benefited greatly from being just a little longer, to better establish the world and allow for a more natural character development.


Methinks my monies were well spent.

Anyway, I hope you'll all join me in thanking Stefan for the great guest post. All together now: thank you, Stefan! :)

And remember, Civilian Reader is where it's at. Get on over there and keep an eye out for Stefan's review of The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi in the not-too-distant. I bet it's even better than The Executioness.

Tomorrow on The Speculative Scotsman - and again on Wednesday, as a matter of fact - I'll be welcoming Mark Chitty of the wonderful Walker of Worlds blog to the site, to talk about...

...actually, maybe I won't spoil the surprise. :)

I will say this about what he's been working on for you lucky lot: it's brown, but quite, quite brilliant.