Saturday, January 14, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell vs. Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder

Expedition to the Mountains of the MoonThief's Covenant














Eight of our sixteen entrants have competed in the first round. We begin the second half of the draw with Thief's Covenant by Ari Marmell against Burton & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will advance to the second round in the Battle of the Books.

Thief's Covenant: Pyr hardcover, February 2012, 272 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. Not counting some media-related work, Thief's Covenant is Ari Marmell's fourth novel and his first foray into young adult fiction, part of Pyr's new line of YA science fiction and fantasy.

The heroine of Thief's Covenant is Adrienne Satti, alias master thief Widdershins -- at least so says the book jacket; I haven't yet seen Adrienne as Widdershins in the first 25 pages. Instead, the book begins "two years ago," when Adrienne was the only survivor of a bloody attack on a group of the most rich and powerful citizens of the medieval city of Davillon, a rather gruesome opening for a young adult book. From there, the book goes backwards to "eight years ago," when Adrienne was a spunky young orphan. Finally, we come back to the present day to see Adrienne again socializing with the upper crust, under an assumed name.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon: Pyr trade paperback, January 2012, 386 pages, cover art by Jon Sullivan. This is the third of Mark Hodder's Burton & Swinburne adventures, steampunk set in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, involving real-life figures Sir Richard Francis Burton and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. (It strikes me as a dicey proposition to use Richard Burton as a protagonist, since it invites comparison to Philip José Farmer's wonderful To Your Scattered Bodies Go.) I haven't read the first two Burton & Swinburne books, but they were generally well-received, including a Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback original for The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.

Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon also opens by showing the protagonist at various points in time. But in this case, the different time periods do not correspond to the character's age; rather, we first encounter Richard Burton in the early 20th Century, which should be well after his death. First, we see him hiding in the grass some time after 1919, waiting for the chance to kill a man named Spring Heeled Jack. Next, Burton is in the middle of a bizarre battle in World War I, which bears little resemblance to our universe's version of that war. Finally, Burton is at a party in 1863, where an attempt will be made against his life. This is shortly before his departure on a second trip to find the headwaters of the Nile, i.e., the Mountains of the Moon, in search of a McGuffin. At the party, Burton explains to another character how history has been altered by the time traveler Spring Heeled Jack, which serves to catch readers up on where our story stands after two volumes.

Although it's not going to play a role in my decision here, it bears mentioning that the Burton & Swinburne series are marvelous-looking books, both in terms of Jon Sullivan's excellent cover art and Nicole Sommer-Lecht's striking design.

The Battle: This is a tough one -- there is plenty to like about both these books.

Starting with Thief's Covenant, Ari Marmell skillfully uses scenes out of chronological sequence to get us interested in multiple different aspects of Adrienne's life. How did she climb from an orphan to high society? Who was behind the slaughter of two years ago, and what happened next? What's Adrienne doing now?

Marmell also quickly gets us interested in the religion of this world, in which people worship the 147 different gods who have joined in a pact to watch over humanity. It seems these gods can become directly involved, as one of them interacts with Adrienne in the book's prologue. There is a terrific scene where child Adrienne asks a nun at her orphanage basic questions about these gods, things she should already know. At first, it seems a clumsy way for Marmell to infodump for the reader, but then we realize Adrienne is just setting up the nun:
The girl nodded slowly as though she understood, though Sister Cateline doubted that was the case. The nun had just begun to turn away, when --

"Can I ask one more question?"

Cateline repressed a sigh. "One more. Then you need to eat your supper."

"If Davillon has so many gods, how come not one of them got off his butt and saved my mommy and daddy?!"
Through 25 pages, the strength of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is the way-cool steampunk imagery:
To his left, the crest of a bloated sun was melting into a horizon that quivered in the heat, and ahead, in the gathering gloom, seven towering, long-legged arachnids were picking their way through the red weed that clogged no-man's-land. Steam was billowing from their exhaust funnels, pluming stark white against the darkening purple sky.

Harvestmen, he thought. Those things are harvestmen spiders bred to a phenomenal size by the Technologists' Eugenicist faction. No, wait, not Eugenicists--they're the enemy--our lot are called Geneticists. The arachnids are grown and killed and gutted and engineers fit out their carapaces with steam-driven machinery.
* * *
One of the gigantic vehicles had become entangled. Scarlet tendrils were coiling around its stilt-like legs, snaking up toward the driver perched high above the ground. The man was desperately yanking at the control levers in an attempt to shake the writhing plant from his machine. He failed. The harvestman leaned farther and farther to its left, then toppled over, dragged down by the carnivorous weed.
A major point of emphasis in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is playing around with historical figures; for instance, Burton meets a journalist who turns out to be H.G. Wells, then Oscar Wilde randomly appears as a cabin boy, etc. etc. Unfortunately for Hodder, I've always found it distracting when real people appear in cameo roles like that. I prefer alternate histories where the main characters are nobody I've heard of (e.g., Dick's The Man in the High Castle), so the focus is on how the world is different in this timeline, rather than how certain individuals end up doing different things. That is admittedly a subjective reaction. There are plenty of readers who get a big kick out of this sort of thing, and if you're one of them, you should definitely give Mark Hodder a try.

This is a very close call, but in the end, Thief's Covenant is the book that introduced me to the character I'm most interested in following further.

THE WINNER: THIEF'S COVENANT by Ari Marmell

Thief's Covenant moves on to battle either Stina Leicht's And Blue Skies from Pain or Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Boneyards in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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