Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review | The Heretic Land by Tim Lebbon

An island prison. An ocean full of monsters. No chance of escape.

Sailors are afraid to land at the prison colony of Skythe — instead they throw the convicts overboard. The heretical scholar Bon Ugane might make it to the shore, but will he survive the island itself?

Among the prisoners competing brutally for survival and wildlife warped by fallout from an ancient war, something else waits on Skythe: a living weapon whose very existence is a heresy. Destroyed many years ago, now it silently begins to clutch at life once more.


As I said in response to a comment on my review of Tim Lebbon's first fantasy novel for Orbit, I don't look back on Echo City in anger, but I do wish it had been a little less derivative. It read like bootleg China Mieville, and given Mieville's characteristic refusal to repeat himself, perhaps there's a place for that... a particular niche to appeal to. That said, if authors are going to beg, borrow or steal from such a master craftsman, they've got no-one to blame but themselves when their work, like Lebbon's last, falls short come the comparison.

To put it politely, then, Echo City had its issues, yet I enjoyed it enough that I was prepared to give its author another shot. This week, I did exactly that, and I'll say this about The Heretic Land: the premise, at least, is unbelievably appealing.

An island prison, like in Lost or Shutter Island, except staffed and surrounded on all sides by monsters and mutated men? Yes please. A man of science sentenced to serve a term because he dared to profane something as sacred as faith? Sure thing. And last but not least, a fallen god - or a being so superior to we mere mortals that it is virtually indistinguishable from a fallen god - born again into the world after untold centuries dead, or only dormant? Well alright!

Sadly, the blurb is probably the best thing about The Heretic Land.

It begins as clumsily as it continues: with some awkward worldbuilding and an at best sketchy rendering of our cast of characters, as on the prisoner transport over the sea to Skythe, our hapless protagonist Bon Ugane whispers with his inevitable love interest Lechmy Borle... about his life story, her more secretive interests, and what to expect of the infected isle when they finally get there. Like the premise, this gloss is superficially promising:
"Some [prisoners] would be political dissidents like him, banished by Alderia's rulers, the Ald, for questioning their word and the tenets of their rule. Others could be religious exiles sent away for being too vocal in their own beliefs; some fringe religions were allowed, but if they actively challenged belief in the Fade they had gone too far. Perhaps there were murderers, rapists, or terrorists. He would not ask, and few people seemed willing to betray their crimes. They might all be classed as criminals by the Ald, but in many cases that would be all they had in common." (p.10)
That said, these introductory elements appear so transparent that for a time it feels like we're reading notes for a novel instead of a completed piece of work, and though The Heretic Land doesn't get any worse than that, nor, as it goes on, does it get a great deal better. The dialogue is dreary; the prose pedestrian. The plot is plodding, and predictable. Rather than representing agency, our characters, such as they are, are dragged along by the narrative - quite literally in one case - sorely testing one's investment in their perspectives.

However, The Heretic Land has a few redeeming features. Once it's been established, the setting for this struggle between science and spiritualism is impressive. "Alderia's use of forbidden magic had not killed Skythe, but had destined it to a future of weakness, mutation, and steady, slow decline. It had been six hundred years [since the war], and it might be six hundred more until this land was truly dead." (p.58) Thus the monsters, and no small quantity of rather visceral violence; here, the former horror author plays to his strengths, giving The Heretic Land a firm, if ultimately inconsequential foundation.

I still say Tim Lebbon is a talent - he may write a great novel one day - but for the time being, I can only conclude that The Heretic Land is amongst his weaker works. My feelings about Echo City were mixed anyway, and I dare say Lebbon's latest is still less impressive. I certainly didn't despise it, but I didn't adore either. Instead, a fate worse than hate: it made me meh.


The Heretic Land
by Tim Lebbon

UK Publication: August 2012, Orbit

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Recommended and Related Reading


  1. Hmm this is too bad. I really enjoyed Echo City, but I've never read Mieville so I think that perhaps Echo City was a breath of fresh air for me. I'm not sure if I'll read this one or not... The last thing I want is a bad meh. Solid review!

    1. You've never read China Mieville?

      You've never read China Mieville!

      Oh, how I envy you, Cursed Armada. What I wouldn't give to be able to experience The Scar for the first time a second time...

      So what's stopped you, I wonder?

  2. Oh bugger. Was looking forward to this one too. Hey ho, there's nothing worse than a meh...

  3. Cursed Armada, how do you know this is a "solid" review if you haven't read the book? If you enjoyed Echo City don't be put off by the above opinion - that's all it is, opinion. Tim Lebbon is one of the best writers we have - fantasy or otherwise! (One person's "meh" is another's... etc.)

    1. This is true. My opinions are my own - as yours are yours - and although opinions are very far from facts, they're not exactly valueless either. And you will admit, I think, the difference between this review and a single starrer complete with eight exclamation points on Amazon.

      So tell me, Anonymous, because I haven't given up hope, as I said in the review's conclusion: in your opinion, what makes Tim Lebbon one of the best writers we have? I don't and I won't pretend to have read everything he's written, so if there's something brilliant in the back catalogue... well, I'm all ears.

  4. Darn.

    I was looking forward to this - actually was going to start today but diverted into God's War instead. I agree Echo City was a bit of a disappointment; I liked it but found it hard to love. Fallen is probably Lebbon's best novel.

    For the record, what stopped me reading Mieville was Kraken (shudder). Worst thing I've read since Virginia Woolf. The City and The City stares at me from my bookcase, but I refuse to entertain it.