Saturday, March 4, 2017

Wyrm's Bane by John Mollison
My good friend Jon Mollison seems to be some kind of kindly godfather to the PulpRev movement. He writes encouraging reviews for new authors, records audiobooks for Castalia, and does a lot of reading on his own - he once told me that if the big publishers were doing their jobs, he'd be content with just being a fan.

He's not just a fan, though, he's published a series of four loosely-linked dragon-themed novellas that are now bundled with an extra short story from the dragon's perspective as Five Dragons. I picked "Wyrm's Bane," the second story from that collection, to review for the 3/3 challenge.

I'm on record as being highly in favor of highly critical reviews. I want the things around me to be beautiful. I want the things the Pulp Revolution produces to be high-quality, to be the sorts of things we can wave around to embarrass the torlock. Jon, if you're reading this, this is gonna hurt.

Just kidding. I loved it. I did have to skip ahead to "Wyrm's Bane" because of the bait-and-switch action scene in the beginning of "The King's Dragon." How does it feel when it happens to you?

Anyway, the most refreshing thing, oddly enough, I found in this story was its completely unashamed use of medieval European aesthetics. We're in an age of fantasy where authors avoid dragons like they used to avoid the verb "said," twisting themselves to give us any kind of monster to fight but dragons, because dragons make you think of the kind of fantasy that's been "played out." Dragons aren't cliched. They're incredible symbols of avarice that are only more pertinent in prosperous ages such as this one. Maybe flammable dinosaurs are played out, that's what some authors try to call "dragons."

The dragon isn't the main character here, it's a street urchin named Corbie, who lives above a lecture hall and wants to be a mother. Mollison wastes no time introducing us to Corbie and her nasty city, which is about to be curb-stomped by an army of all the countries it used to manipulate unless its cadre of nasty wizards can come up with something. They have, Corbie has to stop it, I won't spoil it for you. It's a buck, or four for the package and a story about a dragon showing up in Tenochtitlan.

Two areas where Mollison shines but didn't have to, where he could have gone ahead and made a good story but went the extra mile because he loves you, are the physical mechanics and the sense of scale. When things get thrown around they feel solid, that's the best way I can explain it, and a lot of the big action takes place at a distance, with enough closeness with the characters that it doesn't feel distant to the reader. Big things happen that the little people see, and we're linked closely to their excitement.

One area where he shines and he did have to, not just for the story's sake but for everyone's, is his treatment of the chaos of war. We aren't treated to the gory bits here, but the sense of loss and disconnection as all the bonds that form a city are severed at once is real and intense, and once the main narrative is over we briefly follow the heroine as she deals with the aftermath, in a realistic, appropriate, and inspiring way.

This sense of realism extends to city life a week into a siege, where people aren't starving yet but they're sure they will soon. There's a kind of Thieves' Guild that Corbie has business with, except rather than a suave team of master burglars with an obstacle course in the basement it's a group of vagabonds making hobo stew. There's a group of homeless boys sworn to loyalty to each other, but they're just kids, these aren't heroic vaunts. And this is all presented in a matter-of-fact way, without trying to impress us with how dark things are.

There are a few problems, though. The characters normally speak in a transparent Victorian dialect, which makes the few times a modern idiom slips through more glaring. There are a few stray punctuation marks, too many rogue "It's," and one place where a list is unfinished. Those are the only things that remind you you're reading something self-published, though, and a polished version of this stuff is the sort of thing I'd give away to people.

I'm looking forward to more from Jon. I'm glad the big publishers aren't doing their jobs.

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