The Dread Wyrm by Miles Cameron
A Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron
There's a moment in Tarantino's Django Unchained that pivots the narrative irrevocably and it comes with 40 minutes of running time left. I'm speaking of the moment Christoph Waltz shoots Leonard DiCaprio in the chest, resulting in an orgy of cathartic violence, with Django trying his damnedest to stay alive while hordes of racist white men shoot at him. When seeing the film for the first time, I gasped and wondered where else could the narrative go with so much running time left? The Dread Wyrm features a sequence at the halfway point performing the same sort of irrevocable shift. I held my breath and wheezed and gasped and sighed during this bit, leading my partner to make fun of me while they worked and I pored over this bit. Where The Fell Sword introduced a million plotlines and cut between them with short sharp scenes, The Dread Wyrm capitalizes on these introductions with, for lack of a better word, punchlines ("resolution" doesn't quite work as this third book of five still opens plotlines). The tournament held in Harndon organized by the Queen (introduced skillfully in the previous volume) is the central point, around which the various plots revolve, and I expected this event to unfold with bits of court drama, whispers in corridors, spies and lies, but Cameron doesn't really bother with any of that. Instead, he burns everything to the ground, narratively speaking. The whole sequence is an incredible moment of narrative coagulation, if I might coin a phrase. All the moving parts clang together in an orgy of violence which never feels unnecessary or superlative. The rest of the novel runs down these new avenues of plot, and ends in a second harrowing excess of violence. This series, while offering little novel in the way of fantasy, is running at peak efficiency. I'm starting the fourth volume immediately.
Miles Cameron has succeeded in one very specific area where literally no author has ever done: I like this series so much that I have read three entries in a row. Never before have I ever gone straight through a series. My usual MO has me taking breaks between entries. Even my beloved Gene Wolfe didn't excite my interest enough to warrant three back-to-back volumes. This can only be a testament to Cameron's magisterial skills in plotting.
Some might call the fourth (of five) novel a bit of a disappointment, or even the worst of the series. It abandons the format of the previous three books (long chapters with scenes introduced by headers indicating location and POV character) and—very curiously—the spelling of "boglin" for "bogglin" with two g's. Not much can be said to happen in comparison with The Dread Wyrm, which fulfilled the promise of the incredibly complicated second novel, The Fell Sword. Rather, A Plague of Swords is better viewed not as a discrete entry in a series but rather as a 465 page prologue to the finale. I'm guessing that's how this started out: Cameron originally planned this series to be one or two books shorter but found the story got away from him. Thus, an artificial beginning, middle, and end surround this prologue. Characters are moved across the map, some fortunes change, a handful of established characters are killed (either almost off-screen or entirely off-screen). Mostly, this volume does setup. I find it changes how one appraises an object when one considers the context more broadly.
I'm also tagging this as "LGBT" because there is one explicitly gay character, one implicitly lesbian, and one intersex character who, thanks to magic, can change gender. Other people of the cast regard this latter character not as divergent or bizarre, but as implying, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," if you catch my meaning. Really, one of the major thematic interests of this series has been to expand, in world-shaking ways, the provincial views of its major cast.
Anyway, this was great, even if fantasy of this ilk isn't normally my cup of tea.
I'm posting these two reviews before the end of the month because I'm currently almost halfway through The Water Margin, or in the edition I'm reading, Outlaws of the Marsh. I read the first volume (of four) back in April or something and I was inspired to continue it, resolving to read longer, meatier books than reaching an arbitrary number of books to complete in a year. So I won't finish The Water Margin in 9 days (it's 2,000 pages long); hence, the early publication date.