The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way up stream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.
In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.
For Fisk and Shoe – two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other – their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.
And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
Looking at the cover of The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a western. The simple but striking image of a steamboat certainly suggests that the story will follow a very specific direction. In what I can only apologise for being a slightly confounding statement, you would be both right and wrong for thinking along those lines. There is little denying that the latest from Jacobs proudly wears its Western roots on its sleeve, but there is also far more to it than that. It quickly becomes evident, after only a handful of pages, that this novel is a veritable mash-up of genres each vying for the reader’s attention in a wonderfully complex but entertaining tale.
This is a deceptive book. At first glance it doesn’t appear to be that big but there is actually a heck of a lot going on here. I’m not quite sure how he has pulled it off but Mr Hornor Jacobs has written what feels like the literary equivalent of the TARDIS, once you open the book you’ll realise that it is much, much bigger on the inside. Let’s see if I can explain. Try to imagine a world where an imperial force, not massively dissimilar to the Roman Empire (let’s call them Rumans for the sake of argument) is rubbing shoulders with men who could best be viewed as cowboys. Also along for the ride are half men known as dvergar (dwarves) and savage tribal warriors called vaettir,who could be seen as a nod to both native American Indians and elves. Elsewhere, there are also demons, imps and a host of other potential enemies, including a race of humans that sounds suspiciously like the Japanese Shogunate. Told you there was a lot going on, didn’t I?
Amidst all these various groups, we find the slightly mis-matched pairing of Fisk and Shoe. The former is a taciturn pistolero with an enigmatic past, your typical western gunslinger type. The latter is a long-lived half-blood dvergar caught between the two different races of his birth. They are both just trying to survive and do what needs doing to get their jobs done, but it seems that they are beset on all sides. Of the two, Shoe is certainly more personable, ironic as he is only half-human, but both bring their own unique abilities to the mix. What Fisk lacks in communications skills, he more than makes up for in action. I was pleased to discover later in the novel that some of Fisk’s murky past does in fact get explained, I’m not a huge fan of characters remaining enigmatic for the entirety of a whole book. I do suspect however, that there are still some things that have not yet been revealed about them both.
Most of action takes place in and around the aforementioned steamboat, The Cornelian, while it travels along the Big Rill, a river in the middle of nowhere. Jacobs is a sneaky old so and so. Even though the plot occurs miles from anything resembling civilization, he still manages to inject a whole host of tantalizing hints and tidbits regarding his world building. My personal favourite being the idea that Ruman technology has evolved and is driven by the presence of demonic forces that are bound into servitude by engineers. It’s a nicely skewed vision of the traditional take on a wizard. Hellfire bullets are also a very cool concept*
In a bold move, the writing doesn’t shy away from what some would consider more controversial subjects. Attitudes towards race are tackled head on and play an important part in almost every interaction. The Rumans consider themselves superior to everyone so non-Rumans harbour an ill-hidden resentment toward them. On top of that the human’s attitudes towards non-humans, the dvergar and the vaettir in particular, is also distinctly superior. There is also an insightful exploration of how the different genders are treated and viewed out in the frontier lands. One thread of the narrative follows a character called Livia Cornelius and tackles some of these issues specifically. The further she moves away from the rules imposed by society and the controlling heart of the Ruman Empire the more you see her real personality emerge.
As I mentioned before, The Incorruptibles isn’t just a Western, and it isn’t just a fantasy novel either. There are even a handful of moments where the plot gets close to being full blown, bloody horror. Just wait until you meet the Crimson Man! Now don’t panic, I know what you’re thinking, you’re concerned this is might just an excuse for genre bingo. Don’t worry, it’s not. Jacobs know exactly what he is doing, where the story is going, and he blends all these seemingly disparate elements together with real skill.
I like fantasy a great deal, but what I love more is when an author takes traditional fantasy tropes picks them apart and then rebuilds them, redefining them as they go. I want to read fantasy fiction that messes with my preconceived notions and throws me the odd curve ball or two. With The Incorruptibles, it feels like John Hornor Jacobs has done just that. I can only hope that there will be further books set in this world as it strikes me there is much left still to explore. Hopefully more Gooseberry**
The Incorruptibles is published by Gollancz and is available now. This is definitely one of my favourite reads so far in 2014.
*No, I’m not telling you why. Go and read the book and you’ll find out.
** Nope, I’m not explaining this one either 🙂