Farlander (book, Col Buchanan, 2010)
A review from SFX 194.
Col Buchanan/Tor/ 387 pages/ £17.99 (HB)
Aged assassin takes on an apprentice and his toughest job yet.
Maps. Sometimes it’d be best if they just let us imagine it. Many fantasy maps are geographically unbelievable horrors, poorly adapted from our own world, that undermine the carefully produced word-portrait the author strives for. Farlander suffers from this.
Further to this point: language. Middle-earth grew from Tolkien’s linguistic play, lending it a solidity few others have managed. Farlander co-opts real names and history from all over the place (Skara-Brae, Mercia, Dao). Rule Five of the Turkey City Lexicon, ‘Call a Rabbit a Smeerp’ is also widely flouted – Pica birds (magpies), Zels (zebra-horses), Chee (tea) and so on, worse, it’s done with no consistency.
This does not do much to win over the finickity fan. This is a shame, because Farlander is gripping. Protagonist Ash is the best of a group of ninja-like assassins. To those who can afford their services, they offer vendetta as an insurance against murder. Ash is dying, so reluctantly agrees to take an apprentice. This sounds like a clichéd ‘potboy to superhero’ tale, but Buchanan takes a braver road with all the clichés he employs, delightfully undermining expectation. And, as the story progresses, you realise his world is not so poorly thought out after all. There’s some well-integrated early industrial flourishes, and the Cult of Mann, the baddies, are a workable synthesis of the Thuggees and Crowley-esque ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ hedonism.
This is a four-star story with five-star characters in a three-star world. The result is a like a slightly less accomplished Joe Abercrombie, but more real for its dourness. If Buchanan’s handling of detail (in places, this goes for the story as well as the world) grows to match his ability with character, he’s going to be really good.