Thursday, April 5, 2012

Giant Thief

The quick and dirty:
Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: On the long side of average (381 pages)
Publication: January 31, 2012 from Angry Robot Books
Premise: Easie Damasco is caught stealing from a supply train belonging to the army of Moaradrid, a barbarian warlord bent on seizing the throne with the help of giants he has coerced into service. He is saved from hanging only to wind up in the disposable unit and winds up in command of a giant named Saltlick in the middle of the battle. They escape together, stealing a few more things on the way out, and soon find themselves over their heads between the army, a rebellion, and more chase scenes than either of them ever wanted to experience.
Warnings: One instance of attempted rape as a plot point
Recommendation: If you're absolutely going to die without a new book featuring a thief-protagonist, go for it, but for a save-the-kingdom adventure it's pretty average. 

There's one moderate spoiler in the red pen section for an event that occurs about a third of the way through the book. I can't really say I apologize, because it's a stupid plot point, but you've been warned: skip the paragraphs on Mounteban if you're worried.

Why this one is best described as a romp: 

 It's hard to resist an opening line like "The sun was going down by the time they decided to hang me." Easie Damasco builds from of that initial impression to create a first few chapters full of never-ending trickery, confidence, and style. He glosses over the fact that he was stealing out of hunger instead of for his own entertainment, and it's easy for the reader to buy into the legend that he builds around himself. Brilliant one-liners abound, particularly when he's trying to bite his tongue and only be rude in his head; Easie is honestly at his best when he's wisecracking.

The setup of the world itself is generic enough: kingdom being invaded by a barbarian horde, lots of cities, merchants and nobles, the usual. Nevertheless, David Tallerman shines when he's describing the various new places that Easie and company are seeing, particularly cities; the plateau of the giants is honestly one of the best ideas for giant habitation that I've ever seen in fiction. We see a lot of piles of rocks and weird enormous houses, but this is very different in a way that helps explain a lot about the species without eating too many pages. The description of rooftops in Muena Palaiya works exceptionally well, setting up a road that's both freeing (as rooftop roads in fantasy novels almost always are) and difficult to navigate because being on a roof does not, contrary to popular lazy-writing belief, make you invisible to people on the ground. Easie has some very realistic close calls with being seen and testing his athleticism after an exhausting journey, and tha teffort made me more willing to buy into his background as a thief.

In a similar vein, the lightly Spanish flavor that Tallerman inserted worked well. Seeing place names that were clearly inspired by a language besides English, French, or Tolkeinesque pretentious gibberish was nice, as was the impression that the full cast of characters on the good side isn't white-European as so very many fantasy casts are. That could have extended more into the culture, and seeing it represented on the cover would have been nice (Easie is a badly photoshopped picture of a white guy and Saltlick is blue, for reasons passing understanding), but even baby steps help. 

Many books gloss over the mundane parts of journeys in favor of focusing on the glamour of the eventual fighting, but Easie spends a lot of time being sore, scared, and hoping that eventually he will be allowed to sleep. Estrada, the leader of the resistance, drives absolutely everyone into exhaustion because there's no other choice, and her air of being close to collapse half the time is pitch-perfect. Easie and his companions are on the run at night, near cliffs, or under arrow fire, and Tallerman does a brilliant job of conveying the way tension slowly gives way to desperate exhaustion. I've rarely cared so much about a cross-country chase scene, though the scenes of being held captive between running segments don't always work.

Interestingly enough, the best characterization comes from Saltlick, whose main method of communication is two-word sentences accompanied by weird facial expressions. We learn early on that he's loyal and willing to push himself to exhaustion, and Tallerman slowly builds up the backstory. Saltlick is working against a language gap, involuntary exile, constant injuries, fighting when he's more inclined to pacifism, and the hijacking of his people's system of government. Despite this, he's willing to take chances to get involved in a rebel alliance that has very little to do with him....while conveying his disapproval of Easie's ethically challenged plans. He's the real hero of the story, and if I read the sequel it'll likely be to see how he deals with the fallout of the last few scenes. The giants as a whole are straight-up great, and the only problem is that we don't see more of their interactions.

Moaradrid gets full (stereotypical but nonetheless great) points for sounding villainous with echoes of "Mordred" in his name, and his actions really bear out that impression. As a barbarian leader, he's ruthless, efficient, nearly fearless, and willing to be very unconventional to get what he wants. He does claim to want to be a good king and is absolutely ruthless in the pursuit of the crown, leaving some good uncertainty about why he's going for this kingdom or how he'd actually act as a ruler. It's refreshing to see an invader with a goal beyond just killing everyone in sight and sacking the country for livestock and loose change, and Moaradrid's cruel desperation does that in spades.

The red pen: 

 I'm just going to say it: Damasco is a swashbuckling last name, but Easie? What on earth inspired everyone involved in this book to say "yes, a first name that sounds like the centerpiece of the Staples ad campaign totally makes your character sound dashing?" Having said that, I had some trouble with the characterization as a whole, manifesting in different ways for three of the main characters. 

Tales of thief-trickster protagonists turning away from their amoral tendencies to serve a greater cause can work, but it's hard to write; Feist did it quite well with Jimmy the Hand in the Riftwar Saga.. Tallerman went a little too hard on the telling here, making Easie's revelations very in-your-face without giving the reader any background. We're informed that Easie is a great thief at first, though he later admits that that's not entirely true; however, we're never told the details of his story. He's in danger in all sorts of towns for stealing, but what did he steal? How did anyone know it was him? What happened the last time he was in Altapasaeda to make him so sure that the next visit would be a death sentence? If he's such a brilliant thief, why was he starving enough to rob an army in the first chapter? We don't need an essay answering all of this to enjoy the story, but without any reasons for his infamy besides "totally a cool thief," his grandiose reputation falls flat.

All of this vagueness makes it extremely hard to care when Easie does something particularly horrible or has a change of heart, which happens about every other chapter in the second half of the book. He flips back and forth between being only out for himself and showing flashes of decency, which works at first. With the right character, like Jack Sparrow is in flashes, you can play his or her habitual goal-serving harshness off of a hint of ethics, or perhaps growing affection for someone or a group, to create a swinging tension that's actually both believable and hard to predict. Even though Easie isn't such a flexible character, it sort of works when he's playing for money or a quick escape. The problem comes when the stakes are higher, when he gets to make choices about how to act when people have just died as a direct result of him being a selfish idiot. 

At several points in that sequence, it was tempting to start swearing at the page: sulking because you're really sorry and no one is being nice to you after you've gotten people killed is the action of a ten-year-old, not an actual grown person with any grasp of cause and effect. It's just not convincing to have a thing happen, listen to Easie realize that he is a waste of space and endangering good people, and then see him getting on his high horse about having a right to know something from someone he just harmed barely twenty pages later. I wanted to stay wrapped up in the story, but squinting sideways at the book to try to figure out if he's actually fifteen and brain-damaged does break the flow. It's also odd to see him not afraid of hanging until his feet are actually kicking and later literally sob with terror in a situation where he still had time and multiple ways to trick his way out of it. Yes, different situations present different stress levels, but it read as Easie having the reactions that were convenient for setting up what would happen next rather than adhering to any sort of character consistency.

When the protagonist is tiresome, then their morally dubious friends are often fascinating, but Mounteban is just bizarre. Firstly, his name is one letter off from "mountebank," which I imagine was supposed to be some sort of clever character commentary but was not. More importantly, his actions didn't make any sense because his characterization shifts bizarrely depending on what's convenient. First he's the tough-but-loyal criminal overlord, then sort of a traitor devoted to saving the kingdom at the urging of Estrada because she had nowhere else to turn, then the proud owner of a heart of gold and a crush on Estrada....until she says she's not interested and he tries to rape her.

This merits a digression: rape is serious and emotionally fraught. Using it as a cheap plot point because Mounteban needs to be doing X and be in Y place later in the story and thus can't travel with them anymore is appallingly lazy writing of the worst sort. Once Easie has bluffed a quasi-rescue and Mounteban flees, Estrada cries and says "he wouldn't have done anything," clearly shocked and in denial. And then no one ever mentions it again. Mounteban continues to act slightly infatuated with her later on, no one comments, and it's weirdly like it never happened at all. This is bad writing, bordering on outright offensive. We get a lot more serious and respectful treatment of a handful of nameless torture victims later on in the book in less than a page of writing, and the situation really could have been used for character development on all sides instead of the lazy half-effort that it was.

Estrada herself has plenty of potential, given that Easie saw her election to the post of mayor as a joke at first because she's a woman and that she's leading a rebel alliance with no real military experience. The problem is that she switches between her tough-leader mask, some degree of showing her insecurity, understandably crying under the strain in private....and feeling guilty when Easie, the poster child for amoral greed, accuses her of being manipulative. He does something to diminish her trust in him something on the order of once a chapter, and yet she still seems to care about his opinion. It would make more sense if he appealed to a weak spot about what she was doing to Saltlick, who's undeniably an innocent in the whole situation, but the arguments tend to run more like "you're using me and manipulating me and thus suck." It would be less frustrating if she wasn't so good when she's interacting with absolutely everyone but Easie.

All in all, it's a fun book that feels like it's not sure what it's trying to do from scene to scene. Seeing Easie trick people into letting him do what he wants was great, the fragile rebellion shines, the giants offer a really brilliant culture to explore, and there are undeniably some great chase scenes. I would love to love this book, but all of those parts don't quite fit each other and the characters don't grow and change in believable (or even just entertaining) ways. 

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Rachel Aaron's Spirit Thief hits some of the same points, including the fate of a kingdom in the hands of a witty and unreliable thief. It does more POV-hopping and doesn't deal so much with the personal crisis of conscience, but it has better banter and is generally more fun to read.
~The Webmage series by Kelly McCullough. Ravirn pulls off the trickster game in ways that Easie couldn't dream of touching.
~Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David. If you're going to go for an anti-hero with questionable morals, don't go with half-measures. Apropos is thoroughly detestable with just enough humor and good points to help you relate to him, and it's unusual to see a hero who really doesn't care about having a heart of gold.

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