Monday, August 6, 2012

100 Books #72 - Gav Thorpe's CROWN OF THE USURPER

It doesn't happen often enough that the culmination of a series makes you want -- even need -- to read the whole series all over again, not just because the series is good, but because you realize you were completely misreading it from the beginning and need to see what was "really" going on, and are glad about this, because it's pretty clear that the "real" story is every bit as awesome as the wrong one you've been enjoying. I think the only other time this has happened to me was the first time I read that tetralogy-plus-one, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

Now, before people think I'm saying that Gav Thorpe is another Gene Wolfe, well, no he isn't. But he's pretty damned good nonetheless, and I'm realizing that the series of which Crown of the Usurper is the third and final volume is even better than I had already thought. Which is very good indeed.

Readers of this blog know that I've been rather eagerly waiting for this book since I ripped through Crown of the Conqueror in March, left just as excited and dangling off just as precipitous a cliff as I had been after finishing the first book in this trilogy, Crown of the Blood last year.

I have now spent over 1200 pages immersed in the brutal politics, intricate plotting, dynastic wrangling and battle-smilodon riding awesome of the Empire of Askhor, and I'd happily, very happily spend twice as many pages more there. Alas, this is it.

In this culminating volume, every set of toes our hero, Ullsaard, ever stepped on on his way to the throne of the quasi-Roman empire of Greater Askhor seems lined up now to kick his ass. Thorpe has always shone at depicting the motives and thoughts of Ullsaard's enemies in a way that threatens to divide the reader's loyalties, and this book is no exception. Here, Thorpe has outdone himself: Crown of the Usurper, while quite a Gordian Knot of plots and counter-plots, never loses coherence or lucidity, even as we spend more time following the point of view of the enemies than we do the king himself.

And as in its predecessor novels, it brims over with dark soldierly humor, awkward manly camaraderie, tension emotional outpourings and, best of all, tart and pithy observations, as when one of the more interesting villains, Anglhan, once a rebel provincial governor whose fiefdom Ullsaard utterly destroyed in the prior books* gives lie to the other characters' and the reader's expectations for him: "Anglhan sneered at the sentimentality of revenge. If Ullsaard was to be killed, that was one thing and a pleasurable step on the road back to a superior fate, but Anglhan would not allow such sentiment to drive him." Yeah, that's right: Anglhan is so cold and hard that he's not even out for vengeance. But he's happy to pretend to be. Mu and also ha ha ha.

Meanwhile, most of the empire, including his wives, believes that Ullsaard is dead; even the rather bitchy mother of his usurping younger son, Urikh, wrings her hands a little as she tries to guide him. She was never Ullsaard's favorite wife; she was just one of the strings attached when he married her sister Allenya and their other sister Meliu, as is both tradition and necessity in a society so tough and brutal that soldiers wounded on the battlefield are simply killed by their own side to avoid the burden of tending and transporting them. The faint tang of sibling rivalry among Ullsaard's wives has been an enjoyable side show throughout the stories of his triumphs and conquests, and continues to be wicked good fun through this last novel.**

Speaking of fun, I have to give a nod to a somewhat unlikely set of spies Ullsaard dispatches early in the novel, whose gambits and antics had me looking forward to their bits even more than to the machinations of Ullsaard's enemies. This party includes one Gelthius, whose rise has paralleled Ullsaard's own in the novels, from slave oarsman on a landship (see my post on Crown of the Blood for more of those) to legionnaire to third captain of Ullsaard's beloved Thirteenth. If you think I'm thinking of Richard Sharpe here, you're right. And once again, he has a crucial role to play, in his humble, uncertain way, bringing Ullsaard the necessary intelligence that sends the erstwhile king seriously on his way, with a plan, and woe betide those enemies.

And that misreading I talked about at the beginning of this post? It concerns the other power in this empire, known generally as The Brotherhood, whom I praised in my post about the first book as forming an intriguingly secular priesthood-cum-bureaucracy, but see now as playing a far deeper and even more interesting role in this world and these stories. Wow. Just wow.

If I have a complaint at all its... big surprise... that this book, like a lot of small or small-ish press books, really could have used one more pass under the eyes of a serious proofreader. There are jarring little errors of the kind that spellcheckers don't catch (homophones, wrong prepositions and just plain unfortunate blunders like "wanting to breaking the silence") every, say, 30 pages or so. It's not enough to make it unreadable, but it is enough to make readers like me jerk out of the happy reading trance and sigh and frown for a moment.

But you know what? This time, that's not enough of a reason to take away a star over at GoodReads, because everything else is so damned good. Gav Thorpe, writing here as the mutant offspring of some serious backcrossing of Robert Graves, Bernard Cornwell and H.P. Lovecraft***, saved the best for last.

*Urikh, or the head of the Brotherhood and Ullsaard's many dozen times great-uncle Lakhyri, would be expected to be the big villains, but for me Anglhan is the most interesting to watch.

**Dude. Do not cross Allenya.

***Yes, ever since I had the idea of Saruman sitting around drawing Punnet squares while creating the Uruk Hai, I have had a new obsession with Mendelian genetics. But just go with me on this.

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