Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Abendau's Heir by Jo Zebedee

There are three things you should know about Abendau's Heir.

The first is that this is Space Opera. No, make that Space OPERA. Because Space Opera is noble heroes solving problems with rayguns and the Force, and Abendau's Heir is all about the people in those tense and traumatic scenarios. Sure, there's action involved, but that's mostly mere spice for the personal drama.

The second is that it is written in close third person, so you're getting nice and cosy with said people.

The third is that this is Grimdark.

Actually, I might question that. I am possibly being over-specific with the term, but when people talk about grimdark, I think of Warhammer 40k. I think of Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy. These books paint horrible worlds but it is done with a heavy dollop of humour that eases the nastiness. That black comedy strikes me as a key component of the over-the-top nature of grimdark and I don't see it in Zebedee's work. Abendau's Heir is just straight up dark.

The combination is a potent one and made more so by the fact the book covers a period of over twenty years with enough events that the storyline could have easily stretched to a fully trilogy by itself. The result is that the dark moments come thick and fast at points and you, the reader, get a ringside seat. 

Personally, at times, it gets a bit much. If it wasn't for the love I bore for Inish Carraig, the first book of Zebedee's I read, I would have shut the file about a third of the way through. Yet I continued and here I am reviewing it, and by and large I only review things I have positive things to say about. And I have a lot of positive things to say about Abendau's Heir, starting with 'read it'. Yet I still find myself pondering the huge difference in reaction I had to the beginning and the rest of it.

The issue, for me, lies partly in the closeness of the PoV. Zebedee has herself acknowledged the risk in this type of writing, in that it lives and dies on how well the characters are liked. This is certainly true, but it didn't affect how I viewed the main character Kare though; it affected how I liked those interacting with him. His early interactions with the rebels of the Banned left me hating just about everyone in the book. Arguably, the problem is that Zebedee did her job in making me consider Kare's pain too well.

Not that I cared too much for Kare himself mind.

There's a quote from Ursula Le Guin that I see often in grimdark debates and which popped to mind when reading this book. 

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

I don't want to say I agree totally with that quote, but Kare undergoes fairly constant pain early on and as a result I found him boring. He was like a gym punching bag. 

So what changed?

The introduction of a new PoV in Sonly helped add more perspective to the story, allowing me to feel more sympathetic to the people I was reading about. Another big difference was that once the big jumps in time are out of the way, the plot had more time to breathe and characters had more time to be themselves. Those two things change the mood of the book most and while it is still dark and painful, it is not boring. Maybe this is my weakness for fiction that concentrates on the human condition as much as the fireworks speaking, but Abendau's Heir did eventually snare me hard.

After finishing the book, I actually found myself thinking that Zebedee could have gone further with the misery (which is saying something). For one thing, given everything Kare went through, there's surprisingly little darkness in his soul, or tendency to self-destructive decisions. The lines between good guys and bad guys is relatively well delineated too and could have been blurred. At one point during my read, I found myself wondering if grimdark is truly for me, but the answer is yes. Let me wallow in the barbarity of the human soul and all the cracks therein where wicked whispers collect. Going that bit further would have, I think, tipped a good book towards greatness. 

My condition though for reading the evil that men do is that there needs to be some contrast for the darkness to make sense. Every book needs contrasts but given the choices made, this one needs them more than most. The usual contrast of the grimdark book, pitch black humour, is absent. This is both a blessing and a curse. The curse, for my money, is what is seen in the opening chapters.

The blessing is that it makes Abendau's Heir a very different beast to most books in SFF's varied realms. The author has talked about trying to tackle what it really means to go through the things that so many characters in the genre undergo; she succeeds. Most of the comparisons I have seen are Sci-Fi based - I'd say like Star Wars, only with Darth Momma looking for Luke and bastard-coated bastards all round - but myself, I would look at Robin Hobb, for she is the queen of character-driven drama. Now, I'm not ready to say that Jo Zebedee is as good as this as Robin Hobb, not just yet. But if you read Abendau's Heir, you might find yourself agreeing that one day, she could well be.

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