Thursday, 25 February 2016

Book Review | The Guns of Ivrea by Clifford Beal

Acquel Galenus, former thief and now monk of no particular skill, indifferent scribe and even worse chorister, uncovers a terrible secret under the Great Temple at Livorna that could shiver the one faith to its core. A secret that could get him killed. A secret that could enable an older, more sinister form of worship to be reborn...

Pirate princeling Nicolo Danamis, mercenary to the King and captain of the largest fleet in the island kingdom of Valdur, has made one deal too many, and enemies are now closing in to destroy him.

And Citala, fair-haired and grey-skinned, the daughter of the chieftain of the Merfolk who inhabit the waters of Valdur, finds herself implacably drawn to the affairs of men. She puts events in motion that will end her people's years of isolation but that could imperil their very existence...

All their fates will intertwine as they journey through duchies and free cities riven by political intrigue, religious fervour, and ancient hatreds. Alliances are being forged anew and after decades of wary peace, war is on the wind once again...


With Gideon's Angel and The Raven's Banquet, Clifford Beal handily established himself as an author of fast-paced historical fiction with a generous splash of the supernatural, but in the first of his Tales of Valdur, he goes full-on fantasy with a book best described as Black Sails meets Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle series.

Instead of the seventeenth-century England of the cracking Cromwell novels, The Guns of Ivrea takes place in a secondary world reminiscent of the Mediterranean where piracy is rife and unrest is on the rise:
To be sure, Valdur was not a happy kingdom. Five fractious duchies, three free cities, and a royal enclave not much bigger than a market town made the prospects for prosperity and concordia rather slim. Nor did it help that the king of Valdur was a distracted, vain, and rather stupid man, content to let the dukes and high stewards of the land conspire and scheme. 
But at least he has me, thought Captain Danamis. (p.19)
Captain Danamis—Nico to you and me—is the commander of "a sizeable fleet which had come into his hands as a result of inheritance, brashness bordering on insolence, and a smidgen of blind luck. And this fleet, a collection of great carracks, caravels, and cogs, was now the largest in Valdur." (p.19) This is due to Nico's negotiations with the merfolk, who've taken to trading the treasure they find on the ocean floor for a packages of a plant with intoxicating qualities that can only be had on land. 

Self-interested idiot that he is, Nico could care less what the merfolk do with the myrra, so long as the money keeps coming... but our fool has forgotten something obvious: that the bigger you are, the farther you have to fall. He's about to be reminded. See, some of the pirates under Nico's leadership have been feeling increasingly uneasy about their dependence on the people of the sea, not least because they follow the One Faith, which insists that the mer are the enemies of men.

That commandment is central to another of the perspectives the text presents. Acquelonius Galenus is a greyrobe—essentially an apprentice—at the Great Temple at Livorna, where the sacred remains of the prophet Elded are kept. When an earthquake shatters said saint's sarcophagus, exposing his bones, Acquel and his brother monks see something that could devastate the One Faith. To stop that from happening, the High Priest sets about getting rid of the witnesses. 

Acquel alone escapes the following slaughter, in no small part thanks to the intervention of Julianus Strykar, the captain of a company of commercially-minded mercenaries, and the last—and the least—of The Guns of Ivrea's three heroes. He's leading the Black Rose band to the port town of Palestro to sell a certain herbal supplement to one of his regular customers: a man name of Nico, who'll be betrayed by his own in a matter of moments. Strykar and Acquel are of course caught in the according crossfire, leaving the three at sea in every sense:
His enemies held his ships and his city. The priesthood and his king had abandoned him. And if Gregorvero and the rondelieri had made it back to Maresto safely he would have already been pronounced as lost at sea; like his father. But he had new allies now and he had a plan. In Valdur, gold can buy many things, a much greater tool than honeyed entreaties. Even so, in the back of his mind, a small voice warned him that grand promises—like grand compromises—can undo even the mightiest prince. (p.340)
And the mightiest prince Nico is not. In truth, by being blind to the needs of his people, prideful to a fault, and careless of those who care for him, he comes across as an arrogant ass—which makes him rather a difficult fellow to root for, at least until he starts down the inevitable road to redemption. Strykar, in the interim, is still less interesting. A rogue with a heart of gold, not above doing a dirty deed for the right reasons, Beal does little enough to differentiate him from Nico, never mind the many more memorable exemplars of his archetypal character fantasy fiction has given us.

Happily, Acquel has enough going for him to carry The Guns of Ivrea's narrative. As one of the faithful in a fiction in which I'll say faith has a pivotal part to play, his perspective gives us vital insight into the church and the tenets it teaches. That said, having opted to follow the One Faith because his last life as a street thief was close to catching up with him, Acquel mightn't be its most devout disciple. He's our Scully, in short, and his measured skepticism allows readers to invest in him—and so forth the story as a whole—without having to worry that his point of view is too skewed.

That Beal brings all three of his heroes together so quickly has a number of net effects, however. Involving them all in the same story thread means that there's almost always someone we care about on the page—making it easier to overlook Strykar's blandness, for example—but it also makes the Tales of Valdur's setting seem awfully small. Hundreds of pages have passed, in fact, before Beal begins to widen the world; to wit, it's only when Nico and Acquel go their separate ways in the late game that The Guns of Ivrea really gets going.

Hereafter the merfolk are an actual factor—particularly Citala, a much-needed female POV. In short order we learn that Nico's earnest "quest for revenge" (p.201) has been but a warm-up, because a war is coming: "a war to swallow all of your lands," (p.272) sayeth a satyr; a satyr whose presence paves the way for the appearance of a mantichora—a "lion-like creature, as large as a great warhorse," (p.380)—which finally makes the fantastical nature of Beal's tale plain.

Had the characters at the heart of the narrative been better realised from the beginning, I would have been more willing to forgive The Guns of Ivrea its initially slow story and circumspect setting, but as it stands, I find myself of two minds. Like both of the points of comparison I mentioned earlier, it takes an ungodly amount of time to get good, but when it does, it gets pretty great, make no mistake.


The Guns of Ivrea
by Clifford Beal

UK & US Publication: February 2016, Solaris

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