Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Book Review | The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

With the Haurstaf decimated, the Unmer have seized the palace at Awl. The Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta discovers an ally in the blind girl Ianthe, albeit a dangerous one. She has the power to destroy his mind with a single thought.

But Ianthe’s friendship with the Unmer has made her dangerous enemies. The exiled Unmer lord, Argusto Conquillas is determined to challenge the prince and his followers — and kill anyone who gets in his way.

When the disgraced Gravedigger soldier Granger learns of his daughter’s danger, he must use every scrap of his cunning to protect her. Even that may not be enough as the Unmer, in their quest to unlock the secrets of the universe, have made a bargain with a god... a deal that threatens to destroy the world.


The Art of Hunting begins with what must be the most powerful prologue I've read in recent years. Centuries before the events Alan Campbell has resolved to record in The Gravedigger Chronicles, the drowned world whose depths we plumbed previously is as yet a dry and deadly desert. It's particularly deadly on the dark day the prologue takes place because the world is at war: the Unmer and the Haurstaf battle then — as they will battle again — for supremacy over everything.

One side has taken the conflict out of human hands, however, and called upon a god to finish the fight. "Those who fear to utter Duna's name call her Lady of Clay, for it is said her father moulded her and cast her in the furnace that raged at the birth of time." (p.8) Now she rides into the realm astride a massive mount made of nightmarish materiel:
Composed entirely of the bodies of those it had slain [...] its massive limbs were full of mouths and faces and scraps of armour, swords and shields. A great mess of flesh and metal. And yet those bodies from which it was composed were not dead. Hundreds of slaughtered soldiers gazed out from its knees and its shoulders and gnashed their teeth and screamed. (p.9)
In the midst of this we meet one such soldier whose last wish is "to sit in the dirt and drink the last of his rum and think about how he came to be in this dismal hole on the final morning of his life," (p.1) but his reverie is interrupted by the arrival of an archer who appears entirely unfazed by the horrors of war. "He was carrying a white bow carved from a dragon's rib and had a fine and unusual quiver — a black glass cylinder patterned with runes — lashed to his belt." (p.2) This is Conquillas: the hunter whose harrowing art Campbell's new novel is named in honour of. With but his bow and arrows, Conquillas means to destroy Duna.

And as the distant sound of thunder rumbles, he does.

All gods and monsters made of bodies, this stunning scene stands as a self-contained testament to Campbell's immense imaginative strengths. But this is the book at its very best. The rest of The Art of Hunting takes place 272 years later, and it's rather less successful, in large part because we're aware that brilliance is waiting in the wings... where it remains, I'm afraid, for the duration of this tepid tale.

To the detriment of the text, the author rushes the reintroduction to the characters and narrative begun in book one. To Granger and Ianthe, the father and daughter brought together as if by destiny itself over the course of Sea of Ghosts; and to the last-act uprising of the Unmer:
Uprising. That struck Ianthe as an odd choice of words. There had been no uprising as such, merely liberation as an unintended result of her psychic attack. They'd hurt her and she'd hurt them back a hundredfold. And now the Unmer were free as a result. She could, however, see why Paulus might utilise that particular term for political gain. (p.94)
The son of King Jonas the Summoner and Queen Grace, Paulus Marquetta is a manipulative Unmer prince with grand designs on the brine. After he appears before Ianthe in a dream, Granger's daughter is drawn inexorably towards him — and away, not by chance, from her father, who is losing his essence to the legendary armaments he inherited at the conclusion of the previous book.

He's never not wearing his abyssal armour now, and in a sense it's just as well. Otherwise he would surely have been consumed by the incredible replicating sword he brandishes and the "unimaginable powers spun into [the] prisms" (p.44) of the accompanying shield Granger bears into battle. He still has enough of himself left to see through Paulus' plot, however his daughter doesn't — in her innocence, Ianthe is entirely convinced by the pretty prince — so the pair go their separate ways. Granger takes to the city to learn more about his sword and shield, the better to bring down the ascendant Unmer, whilst Ianthe readies herself to become Mrs. Marquetta: an allegiance which will keep the Haurstaf, who live in abject terror of her uncanny abilities, at bay.

In the interim, someone's gone and involved a god again: none other than the Lady of Clay's father Fiorel, in fact. And — how to put this? — he's, uh... he's pretty pissed.

It's been two years since Sea of Ghosts, and the alarming lack of something like a Last Time On The Gravedigger Chronicles left me feeling lost quite quickly. Out of my depth, as it were. So I perused a few reviews of the first book to remind myself what was going on, reread its last chapters — what a pleasure they were as well! — and started The Art of Hunting a second time, only to find my efforts had hardly helped.

It's not that there's too much to it for its own good, or too little — its addition to the overall narrative of Campbell's trilogy is not insignificant. The problem, at bottom, is that The Art of Hunting is a book with no beginning and no end: it's a muddle of middles that requires readers to work hugely hard for next to nothing beyond the promise of a proper payday come the (presumably) concluding volume of The Gravedigger Chronicles.

Make no mistake: The Art of Hunting has its moments. The world is as distinct and interesting as ever, Campbell's gods and monsters are especially impressive, and credit where it's deserved: the man does a damn fine dragon. At its best, then — as in the beginning, such as it is, and again at the very end — this feels like an elaborate fantasy fit to flourish; to make good, finally, on all that the fine first novel and The Art of Hunting's phenomenal prologue promises. Sadly that make-or-break moment never arrives, and the larger than life beats that kept me reading in the interim are too rare to render the unexpected tedium between them tolerable.


The Art of Hunting
by Alan Campbell

UK & US Publication: November 2013, Tor UK

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