Review: THE INCORRUPTIBLES by John Hornor Jacobs (Gollancz)

JacobsJH-1-IncorruptiblesUKAn intriguing, well-executed fantasy with a difference

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe – two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other – their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.

I’ve been looking forward to this novel for a good while. So, when it arrived last week, I knew I had to dive right into it. And so I did. And devoured it in just over a day. The novel starts off with quite a blizzard of new terminology and an unusual world, but I quickly settled into it. This is a very good fantasy story with a difference.

So, let’s begin with the world Jacobs has created. There are a fair number of influences and elements thrown into the mix, which came close to becoming a bit too much of a hodgepodge. In the opening chapters, there are lots of new terms thrown at the reader from the get-go. This made me initially worried, but things settled pretty quickly.

There is some Roman influence in there, most obviously in the patrician strata of this society, called the “Rumans” (makes it pretty clear). There is a healthy dash of the Wild West, and Frontier in the main setting and certain other key elements of the story. The Rumans are, for example, very much analogs of the Western Settlers, whose incursions into the continent is upsetting the lives of the natives.

The natives are the “Vaettir”, who are like bloodthirsty elves. Mix these with all the worst beliefs and rumours European settlers had about Native Americans, and make them even more bloodthirsty, and you’re getting there. Our narrator is a half “dvergar”, or dwarf. Taken these two things together, as well as the Wild West-style setting, and The Incorruptibles could be something akin to what J.R.R. Tolkien may have written, if he had been more influenced by the Classics and 18th-19th Century US history, rather than European and Norse mythology.

Just before the halfway mark, we learn of the larger story, which is geopolitical, with the fates and machinations of three great powers hanging in the balance. After the ill-fated hunting trip referred to in the synopsis, the lives of the elite Rumans is upset as their bubble of luxury and excess is destroyed. As unfortunate incident piles on top of more and poor decisions, our heroes are sent out to rescue one of the members of the elite group. Unfortunately, the prolonged attacks between the Natives and colonists, events spiral out of control. The story is still very much about the characters, rather than the macro political environment and goings on; but I did find that an interesting addition, with great potential for expansion in future books.

The thinly-veiled real world inspirations are plentiful. For example, “Tchinee”, sometimes known as “Kithai”? That would be “China” and “Cathay”. This sort of approach is nothing new, of course, and I have always believed that the best secondary worlds (in fantasy and science fiction) are those that are relatable and accessible. Thus, we often find analogs of our own world – be it Medieval Europe, America, Asia, wherever. This approach, however, comes rather close to being confusing, as the clear appropriation of terminology and so forth can create a bit of a culture clash and visual/imaginative confusion. It’s a bit swirling, but it doesn’t take too long to become oriented and let the story whisk you along. It’s interestingly conceived, and successfully, too. The author does a good job of mixing all of these influences in an interesting and – as far as I’m aware – original manner.

“It’s a fallen world we live in… full of evil men and people wanting to take what you have and kill the people you love…”

The world and characters of The Incorruptibles are well-written. The story itself is rather ‘gritty’, and I enjoyed the atmosphere Jacobs creates. The details, the dialogue, and character development are well-presented and very well-written. There are no extraneous words, it’s tightly plotted and very focused. Maybe too focused – I would have welcomed some more world-building and more time with the characters. It is because of this brevity that I’m finding it a little difficult to figure out how best to write about The Incorruptibles. All of the elements work, but it perhaps over too quickly. I would have loved to explore more of the world Jacobs has created. A minor niggle – and certainly, “I want more!” isn’t exactly an indictment, but I did sometimes think things moved rather more quickly than was necessary. Almost like the author was in a bit of a rush to tell the tale.

A quick, interesting and original fantasy novel. Definitely recommended, I am eager to read more by this author, and certainly more in this world.

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