Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Talus and the Frozen KingTitle: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Series: Talus #1
Published: 26 March 2014
Publisher: Solaris
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: historical fiction, crime and mystery
Rating: 4/10

Talus and the Frozen King has a very nice selling point – the world’s first detective. According to the blurb anyway. The novel doesn’t openly make the same claim, but it’s set in the second or third millennium BC, and Talus is the only person around who thinks like a detective – observing the world around him to pick up clues and use them to draw conclusions about people, situations and crimes. 

Talus and his companion Bran are travelling to the source of the Northern Lights. Talus heard that the source of the Northern Lights is where the world intersects with the afterdream (their version of the afterlife), and he’s on a quest to see if the afterdream is real. Bran hopes to meet his dead wife Keyli there, but he’s on the verge of giving up. Before he can discuss it with Talus, they are drawn to Creyak, a small island where the inhabitants have just found the body of their king, naked and frozen in the snow (the fully clothed figure on the cover is totally inaccurate). Although the king’s death is mysterious, it is simply assumed that “his time had come”, and burial preparations are about to being. Talus convinces the shaman and the king’s six sons that it was a murder and if they allow him to investigate, he can identify the killer. His methods are strange and often shocking to them, but Talus is smart enough to prove his worth.

One thing that worried me about the story was the idea that the people of Creyak need Talus to solve this murder because no one else would consider the possibility of murder, let alone investigate one. But Edwards is quick to provide an explanation – killing the king is unthinkable so it’s assumed no one would ever do it. According to their culture, the king

would have been a living vessel for the spirits of all the tribe’s ancestors. To strike out at such a man was to strike out at every Creyak villager who had ever lived and died, all the way back to the first dawn. Killing a king wasn’t just murder; it was genocide.

Genocide might be the wrong word, since the murderer can’t actually kill those who are already dead, but he’d still be committing some kind of extreme violence against them. After death, the murderer would be horribly tortured by the ancestors for eternity. Thus no sane person would kill a king. Even when Talus raises the possibility of murder, the king’s eldest son Tharn is not particularly interested in an investigation because, according to their beliefs, the murderer will inevitably suffer greater punishments than any living being could deal out.

I thought this was an interesting concept, and it ties in nicely with the issues of faith and the afterdream that are also driving Talus and Bran. So I got off to a fairly good start with the book, although there were some issue that I had with the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding issues are quite serious. Also the characters aren’t compelling and eventually the story faltered and fell flat, so the whole thing ended up being a huge disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and you can stop reading right here if you’re happy to take that opinion at face value, but I will, of course explain myself.

Firstly, Talus and Bran. They are very obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Talus is very smart and curious, but he can be extremely condescending, especially to Bran. LIke Watson, Bran has a handicap (a crippled hand) and he’s a big brawny guy. Bran states that Talus isn’t very good at understanding human nature, and Talus admits he’s baffled by certain things, like the way love can drive people to do terrible things. Of course they’re not exactly the same as Holmes and Watson. Talus can’t actually work as a detective; he’s a bard. Bran was a fisherman, not a doctor, and was never in a war.

I don’t have a major problem with Edwards using the Holmes/Watson model, but there does seem to be a kind of laziness to it, particularly since the similarities don’t always feel natural. I’m not sure why Bran puts up with Talus’s rudeness. Watson puts up with Holmes because he’s fascinated by him, considers him a good friend, and accepts that he has mental problems (at least in the BBC TV series), but it’s not the same with Bran. Also, Talus doesn’t seem to have serious problems understanding human nature as both he and Bran suggest. Talus can be insensitive, but he’s not as dysfunctional as Holmes. There’s a scene where he’s quick to notice that a man and a woman are having an affair, while Bran doesn’t catch on until later. And as a successful bard, Talus is adept at picking stories that his audience would like to hear, which implies that he’s very good at reading people. This idea that Talus doesn’t understand human nature is something that only seems to be trotted out when it suits the narrative.

Then, the case. As I said, it’s intriguing at first, and it briefly got more interesting as we learned more about the king Hashath and why people wanted to kill him, but then it just wilted. It lacks tension, it doesn’t have the brilliant deductions that you get in a Sherlock Holmes story (I consider it a fair comparison, since Edwards insists on basing Talus on Holmes), and the resolution is simultaneously mess and dead boring. Of course Talus solves the mystery, but not in a way that makes him look as smart as he purports to be. At the beginning, Talus points out that the killer could have been a woman, which is something Bran hadn’t considered. It makes Talus look quite open-minded, but afterwards he never really views any of the female characters as suspects even though they had very clear motives. The issue of faith comes up so often that it seems key, but at the end it has little to do with the story. I understand that maybe Edwards was throwing out red herrings to get the reader more engaged, but they turn out to be frustrating more than anything else. At the end, the truth is far less interesting than the other possibilities.

And, the worldbuilding. There’s no fantasy here, but like any novel set in the past, the author needs to immerse us in the context. My friend Barbara bought the book and joined me for a read-along, and I was very glad for her company because she’s an archaeologist and provided some valuable insight into the historical details, whereas I am a complete twit when it comes to anything historical. That said, I was deeply suspicious or critical about lots of things before Barbara even said a word.

For example, we’re told that Talus went to Egypt, saw the pyramids, and had philosophical conversations with the a queen named Tia. In fact it was she who told him about the Northern Lights intersecting with the afterlife.

Would an Egyptian queen know about the Northern Lights? Would Talus have gone to Egypt? It seems unlikely, given the difficulty of travel and the relatively short life spans of people at the time, that Talus would have had the chance to travel from his birthplace, to Egypt, and then all the way to Creyak, which seems to be in The Orkneys of Scotland. But that’s merely implausible; what seems virtually impossible is that the shaman Mishina says he’s seen the Egyptian pyramids as well as the pyramids in the jungles of Central America. So he’s not only travelled to Egypt but to Central America and back.  

I very grudgingly allowed for the idea that he’d gone on some kind of expedition but Barbara quickly put paid to that, explaining that it was theoretically possible but that there was no likely reason for it to have happened given the resources required, the time it would take, lack of knowledge about their destination, likelihood of survival, etc.

Barbara brought up other issues. The concept of the afterdream is aboriginal, not European. She felt that the concept of a king was too modern (a different word for the leader would have been better), while the idea of killing him wasn’t that outlandish, since lots of people sacrificed their chiefs or killed unsatisfactory rulers. I have to agree with the use of the word “king” – it sounds nice in the title, but Hashath only ruled over a small island; hardly what you’d consider a kingdom. There are also much more serious issues with the time period, which I’m glad Barbara mentioned because otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered checking the dates.

The Egyptian queen Tia (Tiye) places the story in the 14th century BC, but at this time they were burying their kings in tombs, rather than pyramids as Talus claims. The Central American pyramids that Mishina saw weren’t being built until around 500BC, and most were built in AD. The press release I got states that the novel is set in 3000BC, although I’m not sure if the publisher checked that with Edwards, because in the author’s note he specifically states that he’s not going to give us a date. The novel is all over the place anyway.

I also had a huge issue with the writing style – it’s very modern. Too modern even for a Sherlock Holmes story. The only thing about the language that’s supposed to give us some idea of the context is that the word “justice” apparently doesn’t exist yet, and people don’t understand what Talus means when he tells them to “prove” something. And that’s pretty weak. The writing is easy to read, but it completely dissociates the reader from the context. I’d happily choose a strange and difficult style over easy reading that fails the story.

Edwards uses his author’s note to make excuses for the lack of historical accuracy, and he sums it up as such:

Thought is made not of stone, but of story. To really understand the humanity of the past, I think you have to put aside the facts and indulge in a little fiction.

That sounds nice enough, but it hasn’t worked in practice. More research and greater accuracy would have done wonders for this book.  Instead, I find myself thinking that I’d have a more authentic – and enjoyable – Neolithic experience going north of the Wall with George R.R. Martin’s wildlings.

Basically this book is a mess, and a boring one at that.

Review of Empire State by Adam Christopher

Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Published: 27 December 2011 (USA/Canada); 05 January 2012 (Rest of the World)
Publisher:  Angry Robot Books
Genre:  detective noir, steampunk, science fiction
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 5/10

It’s prohibition-era New York, and Rex Braybury, a small-time, no-scruples bootlegger, watches the city’s two rocket-boosted superheroes fight an epic battle in the sky. Once friends, now mortal enemies, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate end their final fight in an explosion that alters reality. Very few know about it, but the catastrophe spawns an alternative version of NYC:  the Empire State, “The City That Sleeps”.

Rex and the superheroes disappear for a while as the narrative crosses to the Empire State, a place that’s clearly a copied from NYC but at the same time is nothing like it. In this dreary city, Rad Bradley, the Empire State version of Rex, is a private detective down on his luck. He finds money and trouble when a beautiful dame in a red dress comes into his crappy little office anxiously asking Rad  to find her lover, a woman named Sam Saturn. Rad doesn’t hesitate to take the case, but it quickly gets him involved in something much bigger and more dangerous than tracking down a missing person. NYC and the Empire State are linked, not just by a tear in the fabric of reality but by a few people who have somehow crossed over. Among those people are Rad’s double Rex and Sam Saturn. But the rift between the worlds might close, and if it does it could destroy both cities. Rad suddenly finds himself having to deal with conspiracies, mysterious and dangerous people, fascinating steampunk technology, and an event that defies what anyone knows about physics, not mention the realisation that his home and his entire existence is just a flimsy copy of something else.

When reading this, I wondered how the book would work without a blurb or plot summary. It’s very seldom that you dive into a book without knowing what it’s about first, so can the blurb actually function as a necessary introduction? I wondered this because, after a few chapters from Rex’s perspective in NYC, you jump straight into the Empire State with Rad and it’s not until much later that it’s explicitly stated that this city was created by the superheroes’ fight (although this is implied). I wasn’t disorientated, because I already knew this from the blurb and plot summaries I’d read, but what if I hadn’t? Would I have felt very lost, wondering what this weird city was and why it was in the book?

Speculation aside though, The Empire State is an interesting place. It’s a mirrored impression of NYC, so that the two cities share similarities but are nevertheless vastly different. The Empire State is quiet, constantly shrouded in fog and almost always drenched in rain. It’s going through ‘Wartime’, fighting against ‘the Enemy’, which everyone just accepts even though it doesn’t make a shred of sense since no one ever leaves the Empire State. Such a thing is inconceivable because there simply isn’t anywhere else. But something about the Empire State simply prevents its citizens from thinking about all the contradictions of their existence. It completely lacks NYC’s energy, to the extent that the dreariness is almost palpable.

As in NYC, it’s the prohibition era of the Empire State, but the latter is more like a fascist state. It’s ruled by the City Commissioners, and any dissent will probably find you in an early grave. Not only is alcohol banned but cigarettes are forbidden too, and most food and drink are rationed (a tragedy for the traditional private dick who practically survives on coffee and booze).

Every person in the Empire State is a double of someone in NYC, although you won’t get to see many of them, just the few who play a role in the plot. In terms of tech, the Empire State is a steampunk world featuring massive iron ships (ironclads) and robots that are used for war, airships and automatons.

It’s an intriguing world, but the more you read the less impressive it becomes because Christopher’s world-building gets increasingly flawed and unstable in an unfortunate parallel with his end-of-the-world plot. Rather than getting a better grasp on what the Empire State is and how it works, everything seems to unravel leaving gaping plot holes and important questions unanswered. At one point we’re told that the Empire State and NYC “cannot co-exist, for they are the same place” and yet it’s very clear that they’re not the same place and they’ve obviously been co-existing for some time. Nevertheless we’re then told that the Fissure that links the two worlds might either be closing or opening wider, or that someone is planning to destroy it, but whatever the case, it’s BAD NEWS and Rad has to put a stop to it, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. If he doesn’t then the Empire State will be destroyed, or possibly the Empire State and New York or maybe even the Empire State, New York and the world. Some people are trying to travel from the Empire State to NYC, either because they somehow got stuck in the wrong universe or because NYC is simply a better place. This may or may not work, and may or may not destroy the Empire State and possibly New York, who knows? There are clearly other methods of crossing over but these don’t seem to be an option. Key figures are hatching plots based on what they think they know but frankly no one really has a handle on the physics, me least of all. I’m not a fan of hard sci fi, but I’d really appreciate that kind of rigor here. The novel certainly claims to be sci fi rather than fantasy, but it’s really not trying very hard.

Perhaps the most frustrating plot point is when an archvillain is revealed to have set this whole thing in motion, but the book doesn’t tell you how his whole role in this in even possible. It’s INFURIATING.  Then there’s the matter of the doubles – every person in the Empire State has a double in NYC. However, there’s no consistency in the nature of the doubles. Rad is a private detective, the opposite of Rex who is a criminal. On the other hand another pair of doubles are so similar that they actually share memories and knowledge, which seems to contradict the way the two worlds work. Two pairs of doubles differ in age. Another pair looks dissimilar enough that no one realises they are doubles, whereas every other double is a splitting image of their counterparts. These inconsistencies suit the plot but weaken the structure of the whole.

Christopher is also guilty of the heinous crime of artificially maintaining the mystery by constantly varying Rad’s level of curiosity. This is one of my pet hates. Rad is a detective, a person who makes a living by noticing oddities and asking questions. And yet when he encounters things like Byron, a 7-foot tall automaton manservant in a brass helmet and boots, Rad decides it’s best not to ask about this kind of weirdness, only to make a mental note at the end of the novel that he must find out more. It drives me fucking loopy.

Perhaps I’m too fussy a reader for this book. It was released in the USA and Canada on 27 December and is being released worldwide today, and most of the reviews I’ve seen so far are positive. The novel does have a kind of pulpy appeal, especially for noir and steampunk fans. It also has some good ideas at its core and it’s well-written. There’s also a possibility that some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot were left there to give more creative space to the Worldbuilder project in which Christopher and publishers Angry Robot allow fan artists, writers and musicians to create their own works within the Empire State universe. Not that that’s a good excuse for a sloppy book, since it still has to stand on its own two feet. As a debut novel though, I’d say that even though Empire State doesn’t work for me, Christopher undoubtedly shows a lot of potential in terms of writing and ideas, so if he can tighten up the structure of his creations he could produce something really cool.

Buy a copy of Empire State at The Book Depository