Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination.
Sometimes, when I’m bored, I browse the ‘fantasy’ tag on WordPress. This mostly throws up a collection of inane ramblings about ‘world building’, shallow reviews (complete with marks out of ten, even) and – due to the ambiguities of the English language – the occasional fantasy-as-in-whips-and-leather. Sometimes there is good stuff, though – this is how I discovered C. K. Martin, whose only fault is that he doesn’t update often enough (I know, glass houses and all that…).
Anyway. On one of these rambles I came across this post about ‘epic fantasy’ novel Crimson & Cream (also, funnily enough, the name of an erotica novel, according to Goodreads). Now, the extract posted there didn’t exactly seem inspiring, but since he’s giving it away for free (a dubious marketing choice, since only the first book in the series is even out), I decided to just give it a go. It went on the list, and I just recently got around to it.
The first problem I had was not with the book itself, but rather with its description as ‘epic fantasy’. There is some debate about what exactly that means. I would generally define ‘epic’ as ‘you need a chart to keep track of all the characters (and also multiple viewpoints)’ and ‘fantasy’ as ‘wizards and shit’ – which could arguably exclude Lord of the Rings, but I don’t think that’s really a problem, what with Tolkien predating the various sub-sub-genres of fantasy. With only two viewpoint characters, both involved in the same, single plot, and maybe a dozen named characters in total, I’m not sure if Crimson & Cream really counts.
(More importantly, I don’t think I’ve even enjoyed a story that labelled itself as ‘epic fantasy’. The First Malazan Book of the Fallen had a good prologue, but was otherwise an incoherent mess; I didn’t even bother reading further than the first chapter of the first Black Company story. Perhaps it indicates a certain lack of… I don’t know… irony? Perspective? Certainly, as a description from a self-publisher, it reminded me of a certain kind of really earnest sci-fi/fantasy fan who doesn’t quite get it – the kind of person who tries to create a coherent Whoniverse, or argues about the canonicity of the My Little Pony spinoff comics, or writes reviews consisting mainly of a mark out of ten. The kind of person who thinks that TV Tropes is the height of literary criticism.)
A fairly large chunk of the fantasy genre consists of repetitions of and reactions to The Lord of the Rings. To its credit, Crimson & Cream falls into the latter category, and I think this is its best trick: in LOTR, there is a sense that all the magic is leaving the world – Gandalf has served his purpose by orchestrating the defeat of Sauron (lol spoiler alert), all the elves and dwarves leave Middle-Earth, and the world enters the Age of Man (the hobbits, never an easy fit with the more mythic elements of Middle-Earth, stay behind; presumably they intermarry with the humans). There is a sense that the world of Crimson & Cream takes place after that: there was a purge of magicians some time prior to the events of the novel, and roughly the first half of the book involves an abandoned dwarf city under the human city. That city is haunted by trolls, true, but they are effectively mindless beasts and so do not undermine the general feeling of loss.
Another interesting aspect is that the protagonist, Jetsam, is an orphan living on the streets. This fact alone – that he (and most of the sympathetic characters) are drawn from the vulnerable in society rather than the elite (as is all too common in fantasy) – earns the book a fair few brownie points from me. Orphans, in this city, are liable to be enslaved and sent into the mines by the king, which I found fairly believable (there is, after all, nobody left to care for them). For vaguely spoileriffic reasons I suspect that the trilogy will not end with the death of the royal family and the implementation of full Communism in Dwim-Halloe, but it’s pretty good that the book focuses on these aspects of the world, even if it probably won’t end with a satisfying solution.
This is all lost in the second part of the book, where our hero flees the city (on the run from a bounty hunter), hoping to find a magician to teach him. Here he meets a forest nymph, falls in with a Dungeons and Dragons group on a quest to kill a dragon, fights goblins, etc. It’s reasonably well-done, but thoroughly predictable. The city was much more interesting. The dragon itself is pretty good – it has a decent sense of majesty about itself; I could really believe that this was an ancient creature – but it would have been stronger had it been the only truly magical creature in the book.
The nymph is an emblematic example of the problem with Crimson & Cream: she appears for a single chapter, and has absolutely no effect on the story except to rob it of the far more interesting, melancholy, ‘fallen world’ sort of feel that it started with. It’s a wholly unnecessary scene that adds to the feeling that the book could stand to go a few rounds with a professional editor.
One annoyance with the book was the use of ye olde shakespearian language. It is, to be fair, used as a class distinction: the street children and so on speak normally, while the upper-class characters use thous and thines. Unfortunately, they do not use them correctly.
“Oh, my! Thou art almost identical!”
“Almost?” Flotsam questioned. “No one can tell us apart!”
“I can,” she declared with certainty. “There’s a difference in thine eyes.”
In case you, like the author, don’t know: in early modern English, thou and thine were simply the singular forms of ‘you’ and ‘your’ – so they shouldn’t be used here, where (rubbish love interest) Giselle is talking to a pair of twins. Every conversation involving this type of dialogue had similar problems, so that any scene involving it put my teeth on edge. Again, a good editor would have spotted this.
One last problem: the book has a character who is described as a ‘gypsy’; the author is presumably unaware that this is a slur for the real Romani people, but even putting that aside it was just slightly bizarre as an inclusion. Even when they use random bits of real-life cultures, most fantasy authors don’t have (say) Jews in their fantasy worlds (unless you want to go for the whole Ring cycle ‘dwarves as anti-Semitic caricatures’ thing). Oh well.
This isn’t to say that Crimson & Cream is a bad book. It could do with the services of a good editor, but if you’re willing to look past those problems it’s a perfectly serviceable story, with a few genuinely interesting bits.
In conclusion: 6/10 :v