RogerBW's Blog

The March North, Graydon Saunders 03 May 2016

2014 military fantasy. The unnamed protagonist leads a unit of The Line in repelling an invasion by the Dark Lord in the next country.

It's immediately clear that this book hasn't enjoyed the attentions of an editor, or even a spellchecker. The writing is often evocative, but also strangely crude. For example, if you read this:

With the focus, there's one especially vivid bit, back down the mountain-slope from the battery guys with telescopes, of a Reems sorcerer going all-out to hold off three demons, and doing it well. All three demons fling themselves back, and there's this half-second where you can see the sorcerer believe in victory when an arachnid shape about people-tall and apparently made out of the souls of angry knives shreds them.

you'd think that means the demons have been shredded, but no, turns out it's the sorcerer. Part of this oddity is because Saunders has deliberately avoided any use of gendered personal pronouns; there are some hints of what sex people are, but it's never made explicit.

The book isn't just about the fighting: it's about the sort of society you can build out of a world in which people randomly have magical talents. The default state is a dread empire ruled by a sorcerer-king; our heroes are from the one exception, the Commonweal, where a smarter-than-usual sorcerer set up a big enchantment that tries to keep the super-powerful aligned with the interests of the state.

I think. Nothing is ever explained; all this has to be pieced together from the very rare hints in the narrative, which throws you in not so much at the deep end as in the middle of the Pacific. Most things are only stated once, and mostly those statements come in deeply nested sentences with inadequate punctuation and occasional blatant errors that make the book a significant effort to read even though it's only around 80,000 words long.

I did persist, and I'm glad I did, but I still feel I know vastly less about this world than any of the people in the book do. The soldiers are infantry and artillery, both apparently using telekinesis, and mentally bound together through a magical battle standard that provides telepathic communication. Artillery "throw" their shot fast enough that it melts from air friction if they're not careful… but apparently they're still using indirect fire, and it doesn't take minutes to come down again? There are also Independents, hugely powerful immortal sorcerers who are nonetheless working for the good guys.

And yes, all right, there is a very fine five-ton fire-breathing war sheep called Eustace.

But someone named "Grue" is casually mentioned, without explanation, at the end of chapter 15, and it's only half the book later that we get any clue as to who that might be. This book contains the pieces of a world which you have to assemble in your head.

It's good fun, but it's also a fair old bit of work. I don't think either story or world-building would have suffered from a more conventional narrative approach. Followed by A Succession of Bad Days; I'll go on to read this, but not immediately.

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