By Col Buchanan
(Tor, 5 March 2010)
When I first heard of Col Buchanan's debut fantasy Farlander, my interest was piqued: the story didn't sound particularly original, yet the blurb - talking of assassins, vendettas and a struggle against a nihilistic Empire - sounded quite Erikson-esque, and certainly appealed. Then a while later I read the sample chapter available on Buchanan's website, and it utterly soured my enthusiasm; I thought the writing - especially the opening paragraph - was often clumsy and uninspiring, while the intensive use of an invented language - one of my pet hates in fantasy - seemed unnecessary and, to my mind, cheapened the chapter.
Still, when I received an ARC of the novel from Tor I figured I'd give the book a chance, as despite the dodgy opening chapter I still felt it might deliver.
I'm glad that I did, as Farlander turned out to be a very enjoyable read.
The Heart of the World is a land in strife. For fifty years the Holy Empire of Mann, an empire and religion born from a nihilistic urban cult, has been conquering nation after nation. Their leader, Holy Matriarch Sasheen, ruthlessly maintains control through her Diplomats, priests trained as subtle predators.
The Mercian Free Ports are the only confederacy yet to fall. Their only land link to the southern continent, a long and narrow isthmus, is protected by the city of Bar-Khos. For ten years now, the great southern walls of Bar-Khos have been besieged by the Imperial Fourth Army.
Ash is a member of an elite group of assassins, the Rōshun - who offer protection through the threat of vendetta. Forced by his ailing health to take on an apprentice, he chooses Nico, a young man living in the besieged city of Bar-Khos. At the time, Nico is hungry, desperate, and alone in a city that finds itself teetering on the brink.
When the Holy Matriarch’s son deliberately murders a woman under the protection of the Rōshun; he forces the sect to seek his life in retribution. As Ash and his young apprentice set out to fulfil the Rōshun orders – their journey takes them into the heart of the conflict between the Empire and the Free Ports...into bloodshed and death.Reading the first chapter again when I began the novel didn't change my mind about it - I still think it's a distinctly mediocre opening, with an annoyingly long opening sentence. While it's clear that Buchanan felt the need to open with an 'action' sequence, I don't feel it introduces Ash, one of the main characters, that effectively (looking back on the chapter later, I found it hard to connect the Ash I'd come to know with the Ash in this first chapter). Furthermore, the prose doesn't do justice to Buchnan's style and storytelling abilities.
Fortunately, the rest of the book is much better.
One of the strongest elements is Buchanan's world, which is tricky to frame in real-world historical equivalents: it comes across as a fusion of Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures, with a technological level roughly equivalent to the 16th/17th centuries, so we've got firearms and cannon (then again, we've also got airships!). It's a pretty heady mix and Buchanan has the deft touch when it comes to worldbuilding that all the best writers have: he manages to make the world come to life and feel genuine with a minimum of exposition. Make no mistake, this is not an easy skill - some writers drop place-names and they have no resonance, they don't feel like part of a living, breathing world (Brent Weeks, for example) but Buchanan has no such issues, as he manages to ascribe an identity to these various locales with apparent ease.
Of course, a novel is only as good as the characters that breathe within its pages. Pleasingly, Buchanan manages to create some decent characters to inhabit his world: Nico is a protagonist that is easy to engage with and his relationship with his master, Ash, has a believable dynamic. Ash is a solid character in his own right, and his backstory is effectively revealed in glimpses as the story progresses. Nico's relationships with Aléas and Serèse are similarly well rendered, as are Baracha's dislike of Nico and his rivalry with Ash. The best character though is perhaps Bahn, who shows signs of slowly starting to crumble beneath the pressure and responsibilities placed upon him. It is in him that Buchanan displays an understanding of human emotion and how desperation can affect people.
Another strong element is the pacing; the story rips along at a pleasing rate and Buchanan maintains this pace throughout. Although I didn't expect it after the opening chapter, he also shows the odd poetic flourish in his prose, and generally his writing is assured and fluid. His plotting is sound, being well-constructed and possessing of some exciting set pieces.
The are minor issues here and there, opening chapter aside: now and again Buchanan's sentences wander a little endlessly, and cry out for a bit of punctuation. Ché and Kirkus did feel a little underdeveloped compared to the other characters, though in the former's case I think we might be seeing a lot more of him in the next book. Kirkus could have been fleshed out a little better; he shows hints early on of an obsessive personality, and it's a shame this wasn't explored further.
Verdict: All things considered, Farlander is a solid book and an assured debut from Col Buchanan, marking the start of what promises to be an exciting struggle between an overwhelming Empire and those nations that resists its advances. While it doesn't really bring anything new to the table, the story keeps you guessing, the characters are engaging, the prose is fluid and the plot is tight and pacy. From a debut, you can't really ask for much more, and I will definitely be checking out the next book in the series.