Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Books with Friends – Triumff, by Dan Abnett – reviewed by Chris King

Today, another guest review by Chris King. 

Reviews tend to be positive. We read books that we think we would enjoy and because we are selective then there is usually very little that we can find wrong. We pick a book because it ticks boxes – boxes like: well-known recommended author; author we have read before; genre we are familiar with; appealing plot described by the blurb. Usually there is very little we are not going to like. But there can be the occasional shock when it doesn’t go right. This, as you guessed, is one of those times.

And so this review is bad, very bad. Other people may well disagree with my verdict – curse us for all being individuals and not one unified collective mind, but it explains why when people give reviews out of 10 they normally give a 2-3 or 8-10. Either it was more of what they liked, surpassed it to be a favourite book, or they were disappointed. (People don’t give 1’s or 0’s, at least not British people; it isn’t kind and you look unreasonable).

I loved another of Abnett’s books, Blood Pact. It had believable characters and a wonderfully explored back stories, even for the minor characters. The villain was not some generic Big Bad but a believable human. No one was super-human (which is nice to see in a Black Library book about the 41st Millennium), and there was not an excess of warp magic to perform plot actions. But it would be wrong to review an author generally instead of a specific work – even if the inside cover of my edition of Triumff was filled with praise for the author’s science fiction…  in a fantasy book.
Let me take you through the reasons why I did not enjoy Triumff, after a rough overview of the setting and plot premise. Shall we?

It is the year 2009. For the last 500 years there has been little change in fashion, public health, technology or the monarch’s name (all praise to Her Divine Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX!). This is due to the rediscovery of magic during the Renaissance. Spain and England unified and became the greatest empire, eclipsing what either of them could have been alone. With magic, no human endeavour for the future is ever needed. Admittedly the premise sounds great – but upon reading the book I found very little magic; the words ‘alternate history’ would have been enough. There is little narration of the setting; I gather we are just meant to imagine 16th century England with a bit of magitek and that will do. There is no detail or explanation about the alterations to this alternate history, like what might happen when Spanish and English culture is mixed. I felt disappointment.

The basic premise is this: Triumff, dashing and daring hero, has discovered Australia and brought back one of the natives of this magic-less land to present to Her Majesty when he returns his Letters of Passage to declare the voyage over. Only, he doesn’t give back the Letters of Passage; he keeps them because he has fallen a bit in love with Australia and its crazy steam powered industry. Returning the Letters of Passage would mean invasion, colonisation and land grabs by companies and could see the end of the country as he discovered it. (We have to assume that magic will win against an industrial nation, although very little magic is done in the book to allow an informed hypothesis). There is also some grand plot by some dastardly Spaniards and unscrupulous English nobles, and a plot against the Queen, in which Triumff features as the first stepping stone. I got pretty lost as to what the other steps really were since the villains’ motives (other than the cliché seize throne, rule world, continue living privileged life!) don’t really enter into it, making them and their plan entirely forgettable. My disappointment rose.

Now we get to more solid reasons why the book was not fun. There are many, but not as many as there are characters. I am suspicious whenever I open a book to find a list of characters; unless it is an epic with a multitude of settings, it tends to mean I am in for bland and forgettable characters spread over three-hundred and a bit pages. Sadly this was the case here. Having now finished the book, I can still only remember about four of the characters names, and that includes the eponymous hero. All of the characters are trying to figure out what is happening and plots and counter plots constantly appear, making it easy for readers to lose the plot. Maybe it was my fault for not trying harder to figure out what was happening, but I prefer to blame the book for not keeping my interest. Most self-respecting readers would not do anything other than blame the book.

The story is partly told by a self-appointed nobody, William Beaver, one of the many characters who appears in addition to those listed in the dramatis persona. Normally I would call William Beaver an unreliable narrator; after all, he gets strung along on false missives and unlikely situations – by which mean I found it unlikely that any character would act in such a way. (When you’re in a high speed chase and the secret police tell you to pull over your sedan, you wouldn’t keep going based on the loose prior instruction of a suspiciously English-sounding French loot player you just met.) Regardless, he never quite knows what is going on. Normally in a mystery an unreliable narrator is great for misleading the reader. However, while Beaver is an unreliable narrator and supposed to be compiling the book, his role is rendered pointless, because most of the action comes from third person omniscient narration. The omniscient narrator gives detailed speech and actions to scenes Beaver is not in and would not be privy to. Even scenes he is present in sometimes take place in third person; the jumps from third person to first are jarring and damages the already-limited immersive powers of the world.

Did I mention that this is intended as a humorous book in a similar vein to Pratchett’s Diskworld series? The humour is forgettable, such as the coincidence of a man who bakes, a man who cuts meat, and a man who engineers the production of candlesticks, all living in the same village (and I think the way I put this makes it funnier than in the book). The comedy often amounts to little more than casual puns or references to popular culture. For example, the character of Eastwoodho repeatedly enquires if another character feels particularly lucky and in a tour of the magical bowels of the Church; we sort of get to glimpse a bit of magic, but world building is abandoned in favour of a Bond reference.

Since we know so little of the world, and since it’s sort-of-modern, sort-of-Shakespearean, sort-of-magitek in setting, we don’t know codes of conduct. This means we are never sure if a situation is supposed to be funny or dangerous. For the most part it seems that characters in the dramatis persona are immune to repercussions. While magic is supposedly forbidden for laymen and done exclusively by the Church (how creepy that makes the Eucharist we will never know, because it is not explained or explored at all. Not that I am disappointed or anything), Mother Grundy can walk in from the countryside and magically set two men on fire, but get away with only a brief chat with the inspector because she needs to team up with him for the sake of the plot. Triumff too can get drunk, duel a man and, because he couldn’t use his multi-use magic sword, right cut off his ear with a potato peeler (I am not sure how this is sharper than a sword) and still be happy in the arms of his woman by the night. There is no further question of his conduct or unsporting use of non-traditional weapons.

Like the inspector and Mother Grundy teaming up, much of the action appears to be done simply because the plot needs it or it seems cool. So when the best swordsman in Spain, who has thus far schemed his way through the book, has the opportunity to poison his greatest rival, he doesn’t; instead they have an epic sword fight. The villain has every chance to drop poison in the drink as he casually passes it to his unsuspecting enemy or even to stab the fellow when he wasn’t looking. Instead as he happens to meet his rival in a hallway he mentions-off hand that he may be plotting regicide; the Scotsman accepts this and then they fight. This was just so obviously contrived, and the two fighters had no real character development. The two-dimensional fellows may as well have been written out entirely.

Thus my complaints have come full circle, and I am back to being irritated by the numerous and depthless characters. To break the endless loop, I think it best to close the review here. I recommend that you skip Triumff and rest contented that, for now at least, I will stick to Pratchett when I seek humour in fantasy. I can’t go far wrong there.

Worst bit: Two pages of characters’ names only accounting for around half of the characters present (not including code names and aliases).

Best bit: Well it was a pretty good sword fight (even if we never get to see the end).

Afterthought: Abnett said that he had been planning to write this book for the last thirty years, that it remained a constant companion in his mind. Perhaps this should be a warning to all prospective authors that your life’s work should be heavily edited before you consider publication.

With many thanks to Chris King for this beautifully sceptical review. I’ll be back next week with another review.

Click below for more  of Chriss reviews: 



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