Thursday 25 February 2010

Book Review: Farlander by Col Buchanan

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"The Heart of the World is a land in strife. For fifty years the Holy Empire of Mann, an empire and religion born from a nihilistic urban cult, has been conquering nation after nation. Their leader, Holy Matriarch Sasheen, ruthlessly maintains control through her Diplomats, priests trained as subtle predators.

"The Mercian Free Ports are the only confederacy yet to fall. Their only land link to the southern continent, a long and narrow isthmus, is protected by the city of Bar-Khos. For ten years now, the great southern walls of Bar-Khos have been besieged by the Imperial Fourth Army.

"Ash is a member of an elite group of assassins, the Rōshun - who offer protection through the threat of vendetta. Forced by his ailing health to take on an apprentice, he chooses Nico, a young man living in the besieged city of Bar-Khos. At the time, Nico is hungry, desperate, and alone in a city that finds itself teetering on the brink.

"When the Holy Matriarch’s son deliberately murders a woman under the protection of the Rōshun; he forces the sect to seek his life in retribution. As Ash and his young apprentice set out to fulfil the Rōshun orders – their journey takes them into the heart of the conflict between the Empire and the Free Ports . . . into bloodshed and death."


Farlander begins with a brief but exciting prologue which introduces us to Ash, a sickly old assassin who is the pivot around which Colin Buchanan's first novel turns. He is a character spun from fine cloth, a solitary warrior whose ill health forces him to take on an apprentice in the form of Nico, a homeless thief caught red-handed in the act of his dubious trade and otherwise down on his luck. Together, Ash and Nico travel to a monastery deep in the mountains of Cheem where the young ragamuffin is trained to follow in the footsteps of his master by becoming Rōshun.

Whatever the strength of its start, Farlander peters out rather quickly in the pages that follow, as Buchanan falls to worldbuilding and the abrupt introduction of a series of at-best tertiary characters. When the duo arrive at Sato, the distant dwelling of Ash and his fellow assassins, the narrative picks up again, but even then it only ticks over into high gear after a relaxing, if somewhat overlong series of hijinx in and around the hills. The beginnings of an intriguing world are present and correct, and the characters too begin to come alive, but however deft and considered Buchanan's prose is - and it is: the man can turn a phrase with the best of them, I'll say that - his spotty sense of pacing means that by the time the real action gets going, Farlander is sadly almost over.

But all is not lost, not by a long shot. Even at its lowest ebb, which is to say around the book's baggy midsection, Buchanan's debut remains a compelling read. The thoughtful offspring of some unholy union between The Lies of Locke Lamora and the better parts of The Left Hand of God, there's a good tale to be told here, a tale that touches on such notions as legacy, learning and loss. Would that Farlander had the focus, or even the length, to do justice to those themes. You get the sense that the author has much more to say about the motifs that recur throughout his first novel; as is, readers can take comfort in the fact that Buchanan at least treats them respectfully, returning to and gradually developing each just short of a fine point.

According to the mini-biography at the back of the book, debut author Colin Buchanan has been "homeless in Belfast, lost in a Zen monastery, and scratching grafitti as a guest of the local constabulary," and so it comes as no surprise that the expansive cast of the first volume of The Heart of the World find themselves in equivalent fantasy environs. In point of fact, short of a brave, game-changing twist in its last act that will have readers reeling, that's exactly the problem: there's just too little about Farlander that is surprising. Things proceed much as you imagine they will; the dense exposition sometimes drags, the characters tread water too often, even the earth-shattering events that occur away from the narrative's main thoroughfare are devoid of the impact they should have.

For all that, though, there is yet something about Farlander that bodes well for the future of the series. Buchanan's voice is distinct, his central character memorably rendered, and the setting for his fiction starkly convincing, if ill-exploited. Taken as the foundation of a far greater tale, Farlander is despite its missteps packed with promise; as a self-contained tale, which I should stress it is not, it is a largely unsatisfying endeavour. Colin Buchanan's first novel is not, then, the greatest genre debut of the year, but equally, it is very far from the worst. As the Seer says, "the seeds of things show what fruits will come of them," and though there's perhaps better eating to be had than in the seeds of The Heart of the World, I don't doubt that the eventual fruits of this author's literary labours will prove considerably more delicious.


by Col Buchanan
March 2010, Tor

[Buy this book on Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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  1. I've been very pleased with this book so far (about halfway through), but I've got to say that my biggest complaint thus far is the fact that, for such a unique and innovative world, it still relies on a few fantasy tropes without altering them. Namely: the apprentice trope.

    Motivation is a big thing for me, as you well know, and I had a difficult time wrapping my head around Nico's.

    Some sickly old dude, a member of an elite assassin sect responsible for murdering thousands of people, comes to recruit him as an apprentice to teach him how to murder thousands of people and put him in bodily harm's way constantly while dealing with various illnesses and addictions. Oh, and he wants the kid to call him "master."

    ...and Nico just goes "hell yeah?"

  2. Graeme Flory has just posted a review over at his blog and he states that it's got quite a few similarities to the Malazan world. Will be interested to see if you think the same after your holiday reading Gardens of the Moon

  3. I probably would never have given this a second look if not for your review. I'll keep it in mind. Another very well written review, my friend.