Wednesday, 11 June 2014

‘The Incorruptibles’ – John Hornor Jacobs (Gollancz)

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way up stream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it - from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.

In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.

For Fisk and Shoe - two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other - their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.

And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.

 I’m a sucker for a fantasy novel with mercenaries in it (the honourable kind or otherwise), even more so when it’s two mercenaries who happen to be good friends who have been through the mill together. I like ‘buddy’ cop movies and this can be something that fantasy does very well, two friends up against it armed with nothing more than a couple of swords and a ready quip. I was always going to read ‘The Incorruptibles’ then, as soon as I saw the ‘M’ word on the blurb.
It was also the hint of something a little different that piqued my interest, namely the blurb and cover art suggesting some kind of cowboy influence to the tale. I fancied something a little difference (especially at the moment, I need something to hold my attention!) so ‘The Incorruptibles’ it was.
What I ended up with was a book that initially threatened to leave me looking out of the window instead of reading. As I got further in though there was no question of my finishing the book and I’m keen to see where the plot heads next.

‘The Incorruptibles’ is a book that wears its influences very proudly with hints of frontier life in the Old West, the Roman being notable amongst others. At this point, in what is being set up as a much longer series (trilogy at least), it’s intriguing as to whether this approach means the setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth (hinted at via daemon powered technology and the rise of the Stretchers) or not. My money is on the former but either is good (it’s all beautifully drawn and very easy to get lost in). A slight negative to this is that the frontier territories are so vast that, in the early stages, the story gets swallowed up by the background and comes across as very slow moving when it is anything but. The steamboat seems to meander when it’s actually moving along at a fair rate, Fisk and Shoe never seem to make any headway into these contested territories when on patrol; they can’t as the landscape is just so big. I love that sense of over powering vastness and the hint of danger always on the horizon; it’s just not necessarily good for the story in those early chapters.

Stick with it though. Not only does Horner Jacobs give the reader some lovely scenery to mull over but it’s almost like he’s biding his time until he lets the story have its head. When he does this, things really kick off and I suddenly found myself with a book that I couldn’t put down.

Key to everything is the deep friendship between Fisk and Shoe, two taciturn men who nevertheless let on more than they say thanks to Hornor Jacobs incisive dialogue. ‘The Incorruptibles’ is full of the derring do you would expect but what Hornor Jacobs excels at is leaving you in no doubt as to why these two men will literally go through hell for each other. Fisk and Shoe share a deep bond as well as a mutual desire to do the right thing even though Hornor Jacob’s plot puts them both in a difficult position as far as that goes.

When the story takes off, that vast background I spoke about earlier is suddenly full of fire, blood and dark magic. It goes from being an empty landscape to one that is suddenly bursting with violence and potential for the plot to become even better than it is already. When I say that the plot is a very good to start off with, well…
Hornor Jacobs dishes out the violence with a hint of Sergio Leone; very cool to watch unfold but leaving you in no doubt as to the consequences. I want more and I’m already a little frustrated that I have to wait for this book to be published first (yep, lucky enough to get an ARC) before I can start thinking about the sequel.

In short, read ‘The Incorruptibles’. Just do it. Once Hornor Jacobs lets the plot have its head, the book is a joy to behold.

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