Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Pale Queen's Courtyard by Marcin Wrona

As I mentioned in my entry on The Big Knockover (and maybe in Dracula as well) I have a Kindle now, and as a failed writer, I am quite naturally very interested in the new wave of electronic self-publishing that has come in its wake. I have a few acquaintances who have had a go at self-publishing on Kindle, and one in particular asked me to review his book on here and for amazon.

This put me a tricky position! I'm only vaguely acquainted with Mr Wrona through an RPG message board, and I've read a little of his travails in getting The Pale Queen's Courtyard published (it was a finalist in a high-profile unsigned fantasy writers competition a couple of years back) and so I was confident that it met a certain basic level of competence but I was still a little hesitant – if I didn't like it, it would be socially difficult (in a low-key way) to piss all over his cornflakes, as it were.

I am a slave to social niceties like this: sometimes my inner monologue is like an episode of Seinfeld on permanent loop.

Consequently, I declined his offer of a freebie and instead bought a copy myself on the quiet so that if I didn't like it I could just not mention it again and get around the whole tricky business that way. Fortunately, however, the Pale Queen's Courtyard is really good.
The biggest barriers to self and small press publishing have always been, in my eyes, publicity and distribution. Yes, writing a good book is a problem, but I am willing to bet that there are hundreds of great books languishing in obscurity that have never been able to reach their audience. Some of this bookshop reticence to take self-published material, made worse by the advance of bookshop chains and decline in independent bookshops, but mostly its just a matter of the complexity of an industrial level supply chain Рthey are not for amateurs! The tale of the self-published writer that spends a fortune and ends up with a dozen boxes of unsold books in their garage is a clich̩ these days. With the Kindle, however, you literally pay nothing (aside from blood sweat and tears) and there's your book immediately available all over the world.

Okay, there is still the problem of marketing and publicity, which are also not for the faint-hearted, but there are success stories of “indie writers” (the new polite euphemism for self-publishers) such Amanda Hocking that must surely tempt even the most hide-bound among us. So, I've got myself a Kindle and while I'm pondering the possibilities, one of the first things I wanted to do was check what “indie writers” were up to. Amanda Hocking doesn't sound like my kind of thing, so I was kind of grateful for The Pale Queen's Courtyard as a great first steer.

This is a historical fantasy set in the Near East at the time of the Achaemenid Empire around about 500BC. We follow the fortunes of Leonine, a thief with sorcerous powers; Kamvar, a solider in a company of Hounds, warrior-priests whose mission is to track down and kill sorcerers; and Iasin, an eight-year old girl with extraordinary sorcerous power who crosses both their paths. The conflicts are well set out right from the start, and the characters have strong conflicting motivations: the thief just wants to take his money, but events in his past make him sympathetic to the girl's plight, while Kamvar is a good solider who comes to find the idea of executing small girl for the supposed sin of sorcery troubling.

The historical detail is totally convincing, and the somewhat mundane world of subsistence farming, toll collectors and imperial bureaucracy gives the more fantastic elements a solid foundation in a convincing real world. This makes the characters inner struggles more convincing, as they are rooted in recognisable, real-world concerns; Kamvar's ruminations about leaving his wife and child behind are made all the more affecting as it's easy to imagine them living in another part of the well-imagined world.

As well as this depth, though, it provides a useful hard line for the magic of the setting. There is a  low-magic level with simple, and fairly restrictive rules as it can't be so powerful to destabilise the setting completely and lose the benefits of the historical angle. The tight geographical focus of the novel helps here: Wrona concentrates his story on the attitudes to sorcery in one limited region rather than trying to work through the consequences of sorcery on a global scale. We hear vague rumours of the sorcery-friendly kingdom far away (presumably in Africa) where Leonid and Ilasin hope to escape the relentless pursuit of the Hounds, but otherwise we are left to ponder for ourselves how the existence of sorcery might affect ancient China, Briton or Japan, eg.

This straight-edge approach to magic has the slight disadvantage of making the magic a little  mundane for my tastes. I generally prefer my magic a little more colourful, more like Jack Vance, Michael Shea or Michael Moorcock than what's presented here, which is quite close to a kind of psychic power. I felt this most keenly when the ghouls attacked while the cast was fleeing from the swamp – I had hoped these monsters might be a little more than shambling corpses. However, the limits clearly work for Wrona, who sticks to his guns admirably. Personal tastes aside, the magic is consistent in tone and effect and the final climax is suitably pyrotechnic.

There is more focus on the adventure side of things than the magic, however, and in many ways this reminded me a little of Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. I think I preferred this, though, as it has a little more conviction than Gentlemen of the Road, which was a bit larky for my tastes (and not a fantasy at all in the genre sense). The action in The Pale Queen's Courtyard is suitably gritty, and while the death rate isn't especially high (somewhat high, maybe) characters tend to get nasty but survivable wounds that mark them for life.

Wrona does a good job with his secondary cast so that these consequences of violence have real emotional weight. Aside from the main cast there are memorable characters such as the old warrior Ashok and Kamvar's best friend Tahmin. The story of Yazan, another of the Hounds in Kamvar's company, is particularly well-done, a kind of inverse of what Kamvar goes through that adds another layer to the theme of tolerance, peace and non-violence that plays lightly through the action.

Wrona goes perhaps a little astray in the final third. Up until then, the dual points-of-view of Leonine and Kamvar have been sufficient to get us through, but then a twist of the plot more or less forces him to include a section from Ilasin's viewpoint. It stands out as the only other moment where we get anything from any other character, and we don't return to Ilasin thereafter. It's not a badly written section by any means, but I just felt that it was unfortunate to lose the clarity and simplicity of those two voices.

Additionally, there's a plot twist in this section that comes a bit out of nowhere. In my Dune review I wrote about how I felt that the rivalry between Paul and Feyd Rutha felt very forced, and in a similar way the author's hand is a little to obviously behind the coincidence that turns Leonine and Barsam into dread enemies. This needed more foregrounding, and Barsam's drunken confession didn't quite ring true to me.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed The Pale Queen's Courtyard a great deal. It has none of the problems one associates with self-published fiction – there are no typos that I spotted and the prose is tight and clean, it's an original take on the fantasy genre with strong characterisation and able writing. If you've got one of these Kindle things, or a some other compatible device, I highly recommend checking it out.

I'm interested in reading more "indie published" Kindle novels. Bear in mind that I'm kind of picky, but if you know about something good let me know and I'll give it a whirl!

2 comments:

  1. Would love to know what you think about Stephen King's "Crouch End" Patrick, there are little bits of writing in there, like the half glimpsed tube train that isn't, which I think are just wonderful.

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  2. Is that a Kindle thing? I did read a bit of Stephen King in the 80s, but I didn't like It at all and called it quits. (I still hold Salem's Lot and The Shining in very high regard, though.)

    Definitely keen to read more contemporary horror: it's on my Ryman's Year Planner 2012.

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