Saturday, 29 November 2003

Janny Wurts: To Ride Hell's Chasm (2002)

Edition: Voyager, 2003
Review number: 1200

The world of Wurts' standalone fantasy novel is a grim place, beset by immensely powerful demons and their minions, where only a few states have proved able to stand firm in human hands with the alternative being to become a larder for a hungry and sadistic demonic overlord. One country that has remained safe is the mountain stronghold of Sessalie - too remote, too inaccessible to be as great a prize as the plains kingdoms. When however Crown Princess Anjar disappears on the eve of her wedding to a glamorous foreign prince, panic sets in and blame is put on the person who seems to the racist Sessalians to be the obvious culprit, the ex-mercenary guard captain Mykhael, in reality the only person with sufficient knowledge and experience of fighting demons' minions and warding against their attacks to be able to save the country. (It is possible that Wurts is making a plea against the hounding of Muslims which followed the 9/11 atrocities, but its hard to be sure of this.)

To Ride Hell's Chasm has many strong points as a fantasy novel. The undercurrents of racism and snobbery it deals with gives it something to say rather than just being an adventure story with magic. It also rings the changes on the fairy tale plot of the princess' disappearance on the eve of her wedding (I'm not sure there is one, but I could easily imagine a Hans Andersen story in which a fairy godmother, slighted by not being invited to the wedding, kidnaps the bride). Some of the characters are interesting, particularly Mykhael, even if he is too omni-competent to be believeable, and the aged King Isenden, though the rest aren't really sufficiently developed to be three dimensional.

There are other problems, too, which nearly made me give up on To Ride Hell's Chasm at several points. In a genre such as fantasy, where novels tend to be speedily written, where elegant prose is not usually an aim, and where editing often seems to be perfunctory, it is common as a reader to find one's smooth progress through a story rudely jarred by an encounter with some infelicitous phrasing, something which doesn't quite flow properly. Wurts suffers particularly badly from this, especially in the early pages of this novel, and it is particularly annoying when a little rephrasing could have helped the reader immensely.

More seriously, the thrills of the second half (describing the desperate flight of Mykhael with Anja to find allies) are severely compromised. Each individual chapter, taken by itself, would be exciting enough, but there is far too much repetition and the whole journey begins to seem endless as far too many winged predators explode out of the sky to attack the pair. It makes the reader begin to think about how believable it is that they manage to keep going, which is fatal; realising that they would obviously have collapsed from exhaustion after just a few days destroys the impact of the story completely.

Wurts is an established and experienced writer, and To Ride Hell's Chasm should really be better constructed than this. There has been a tendency in recent years for genre writers to churn out volume after volume, with little editing; this is something which could be ascribed to the increasing ease of writing which has followed from widespread use of word processors. (At least, though, this is not the first of a trilogy!) It is something of a paradox, since it is also easier to edit and update a word processor document. Even so, too many recent novels read as though they are first drafts, and this is one of them.

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