Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Book Review | The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it—from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe—two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other—their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.

And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.


A grimdark fantasy about mercenaries protecting precious cargo as it's transported through treacherous territory, The Incorruptibles gives Red Country a run for its money, if not its funny, but what sets it apart from Joe Abercrombie's wild west diversion is its unexpected perspective.

Fisk and Shoe have been partners in crime for a lifetime. One is a pious man, the other "damned as surely as the sun rises." Why? Because "he loves the Hellfire. He loves his gun. He's a hard, unyielding man, with a long memory and impervious to regret. But there's kindness, too, under all that." (p.67) Sounds like an anti-hero to me!

Surprisingly, John Hornor Jacobs' new novel is more interested in the man of God—or rather Ia—than it is in the man of action I expected to find front and centre of the alt historical events The Incorruptibles documents.

As a protagonist, Shoe is certainly set apart. Firstly by his faith in something greater—something evidenced by the divine entities occasionally displayed in Jacobs' creation—and latterly by his stature. He's half dvergar: dwarves of a sort who tend to be tinkers or diggers. Shoe doesn't fall into either camp, of course. Instead, he's made ends meet for many years as a gun for hire, though he doesn't love guns, alongside Fisk, who—as discussed—does.

At the outset of the text the pair are paid to guard a Ruman steamship against whatever forces would wish it ill, and especially stretchers, "the genius loci of the Hardscrabble Territories." (p.95) These hellish elves are savages, of a sort:
This is a big land. But it ain't big enough for man and stretcher to live side by side. [...] They don't age, the stretchers. They don't change. They're proud. They'll skin you alive. They'll fuck their own sister, or mother, or brother. They ain't got no laws nor decency, as far as I can tell. When you're never gonna die except through violence, why worry about salvation or morality or whatnot? (p.19)
The Rumans are a powerful force in the wider world of The Incorruptibles, but it's clear that they're completely out of their element in the dirty dustbowl this text is set against. We learn later that they've come to deliver a pivotal personage—a princess, if you can credit it—to one of their many enemies, the better to put an end to the bloody battle between them and King Diegal's men.

By the time Shoe and Fisk find that out, though, all is already lost, because the Rumans—as arrogant a race as their obvious inspiration—don't take the threat of the stretchers seriously:
It had been a lark, and a boring one, steaming upriver and shooting at seagulls in the Cornelian's wake. But now men had died and the darkness held rumours of vaettir bearing human scalps. [...] Before, the Cornelian, twinkling merrily with daemonlight on the waters of the river, had seemed brilliant and proud, a marvellous bit of Ruman engineering and cunning, a beacon in the darkness of the Hardscrabble Territories. But now the boat—even illuminated like a great, three-tiered birthday cake—looked small and huddled. The light shone to keep the shoal beasties and stretchers at bay. (p.86)
It's here that The Incorruptibles gets good. Great, I dare say. Now that the stakes have been made plain, our heroes' real responsibilities revealed, and the overarching conflict at least alluded to, Jacobs' novel properly kicks off. What follows is grim and gripping, surprising and exciting, tense and tremendously well-told, too.

Unfortunately, what precedes The Incorruptibles' markedly more enlightened latter half is a problem—the book's biggest, because there's not, in all honesty, a lot of it, and proportionately, a hundred pages of apparent aimlessness is enough to make most of the story feel like a prolonged preamble: a small-scale affair that only suggests something larger in the last act. There's nothing wrong with focusing on the little things, but not at the cost of plot—particularly in the beginning, when readers require reeling in.

But grit your teeth and chew through it, because what awaits is worth its weight—in terms of the tale and in every other respect, really. Characters come into their own, not least the ladies: Livia, a disgraced daughter determined to find a way forward whether with or without Rume's approval, and Agripinna, a snarling stretcher kept captive for the larger part of the narrative. At the same time the infernal elements at the fringes of the fiction finally figure into affairs, which has a fascinating effect on our narrator's faith.

Add to all that: action. So much of it, so smartly handled, and in such quick succession that The Incorruptibles is a completely different beast before it's over—a bloody, brutal, brilliant one.

So the pace is all over the place, and Jacobs spends a troubling amount of time establishing his narrative, but by the end of the book the scene is set for a series that has all the ingredients of greatness. For that reason I'd recommend The Incorruptibles in a second... assuming you're prepared to play the waiting game.


The Incorruptibles
by John Hornor Jacobs

UK Publication: August 2014, Gollancz

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