Darien: Empire of Salt

By Conn Iggulden.

In Darien: Empire of Salt, General Justan tries to overthrow the government in a coup d’etat.

That’s about the entire story.

The main characters play their parts in this drama. The clairvoyant hunter, Elias Post, is blackmailed into using his skill to assassinate King Johannes. Nancy discovers that she doesn’t neutralise magic, but absorbs it, and converts it to heat, which she can use to devastating effect. Tellius, the Fagin of Darien, finds that Arthur is not a child, but an ancient child-sized golem, who becomes the king’s bodyguard, and is then made king by Lady Sallet (who is a prominent member of one of the city’s ruling families).

Unlike Elias, I couldn’t see how this one was going to end. I thought the main characters might form some sort of league, but that never happened so that the story ended up being about a bunch of random people with special powers mostly acting randomly. While Elias was forced to help the gunfighter, Vic Deeds, assassinate the king, Nancy murdered Lord Albus, the king’s uncle, in revenge for her father’s death at the hands of Albus’s men, and then promptly turned round to defend the city against General Justan and his army. Arthur, aided by other boys under Tellius’s wing, decided to close the gates of the city even though he had little obvious motivation to do so.

Like Sir Richard Ashbury in Dan Davis’s series Vampier Knight/Outlaw, Elias was constantly being pushed to his limits, and he somehow rather improbably survived, which was suspending my disbelief just a little too far.

The world of Darien is magical, but there are also guns, although these are rare and the tech seems to be beyond the weapons of the 17th century. The Sallet Greens, who are Lady Sallet’s elite warriors, wear magic-powered armour reminiscent of mechas in anime. Indeed, the overall feel is a bit like the anime series Last Exile.

It may be that the overall story will become clearer as the trilogy progresses, but far from appearing to led to an obvious second book, Darien: Empire of Salt is self-contained.

The story is a decent read, but does seem to be a little aimless.


Vampire Crusader

By Dan Davis.

In Vampire Outlaw, Sir Richard of Ashbury embarks on his windiest adventure yet. His brother, William de Ferrers, wants to lure him to Sherwood Forest where he will use his brother’s blood to create new vampire minions because he’s fed up with doing it all himself. Instead, on the order of Richard’s liege lord, the Archbishop of York, he heads to the Weald. And then he heads back towards Sherwood. And then back to the Weald in what appears to be some sort of odd medieval tennis match. And some of the time, he’s dragging around the evil Friar Tuck because he needs to torture him for information about de Ferrers, but in the end, he abandons that idea, and if he had the slightest inkling of what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have bothered because ultimately he finds William in Sherwood without getting information out of anyone. But it takes some time before Richard deposits Marian and Eva (who is both the archbishop’s daughter and his bodyguard) at a priory from which they are abducted to lure our hero and his company into the forest.

All the while, the chapters are long, the fights seem longer (and often repetitious), and although things happen such as raids on camps of French soldiers and an attack on Lincoln, the whole story feels like a prolonged bout of literary inertia which would’ve benefited from brutal editing by getting Richard straight to Sherwood for his big fight instead of having him scurry from one end of England to the other.

The whole Friar Tuck episode is a case in point. Richard even goes so far as to capture some villainous nobleman for Tuck to tuck into, but when it doesn’t have the desired effect, Richard decides to kill the friar and his snack. It’s only at the very end that Tuck reveals some plot to poison King John, which Richard vainly attempts to thwart. But as far as getting Richard to Sherwood to confront de Ferrers goes, he should’ve killed Friar Tuck as soon as possible, or sometime before that. In truth, the complete excision of this part of the story would be no great loss.

The length of the chapters doesn’t help the ponderous nature of the story. Even the internal breaks within chapters often come less infrequently than I’d like because the waffly prose is fatiguing.

Davis still can’t tell the difference between “lie” and “lay”, and “taught” for “taut” slipped through along with a couple of nonsensical errors which I couldn’t decipher. There were a few instances of “for” as a conjunction, which is at best dated. As I said in my previous review of Davis’s work, It’s not literary or elegant. I’m not sure how much effort gets put into revision, but there were occasions where the author got stuck on his new favourite word. Such instances of novel vocabulary tend to be obvious, and are all right, but not if the word is used again in a page or two when a thesaurus should’ve been consulted. The same goes for a certain amount of repetitiousness when Richard eventually meets de Ferrers and keeps declaring him to be a raving loon.

“Would you care for a cup of blood?” asked William as if he was serving afternoon tea.
”You’re a raving loon,” said Richard.
“Nice weather we’ve been having.”
“You’re a raving loon.”
“I see the West Indies are 35 for 2 after 20 overs.”
“You’re a raving loon.”

There is, as I feared, a third book on the way, but I shan’t be reading it.