New-weird writer China Mieville has gained fame not only for his surreal stories, but for calling the inimitable J.R.R. Tolkien "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature." Not exactly a charitable statement. But while most of Mieville's attacks could be attributed to differences in personal preference or philosophical conviction -- one could answer condemnations of John Ronald Reuel's "cod-Wagnerian pomposity, his boys-own-adventure glorying in war, his small-minded and reactionary love for hierarchical status-quos" at length -- this point hits home: Tolkien's tropes "have spread like viruses." Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if everyone who populated his works with elves and dwarves shared the Oxford linguist's world-building skills. But few do, and unfortunately they get lumped in with the scribblers, ignored simply for writing high fantasy. Take James Maxey's Bitterwood, for instance. I bet many think the novel treads well-worn ground simply because it features dragons and archers, wizards and axe-wielding warriors. But that would be a mistake, because Maxey is interested in upending all the stereotypes.
Mankind has been enslaved, but not by your garden variety tyrant. For as long as anyone can remember, humanity has been ruled by dragons, cruel and intelligent creatures that control the earth and skies. But in past decades, the hand of dragon king Albekizan has become particularly heavy upon the land, levying harsh taxes on wheat and wealth and human life itself. One night when Albekizan's two sons, Bodiel and Shandrazel, are hunting human slaves as part of their rite of succession, arrows flash from the darkness and Bodiel falls -- dead. All signs point to The Ghost Who Kills, The Death of All Dragons, the mythic Bitterwood. Albekizan burns with vengeance, but how can he kill a myth? A plan begins to emerge, one far more satisfying than the execution of a single individual. Albekizan won't bother hunting for one man. He's going to eradicate the whole human race.
One of the things Bitterwood does particularly well is weave a tangled skein of conflicting motivations among its ensemble of characters, looping them every which way before jerking them taut in explosively violent confrontations. Also, the plot twists genuinely satisfy, particularly if you happen to be a fan of John Christopher. That's not to say there aren't a few missteps. Several times exposition occurs through the introduction of minor, extremely short-lived characters, and a ranting, fanatical preacher who EXPOUNDETH UPON THE KING JAMES BIBLE IN ALL CAPS annoys. (Note to authors near and far: Please retire this hoary archetype with extreme prejudice.) Still, it's impressive that Maxey manages to wring an unexpected revelation even out of that character. Bitterwood's a consistently surprising and entertaining read.
(Picture: CC 2009 by tanakawho)