The Faceless: Solaris paperback, February 2012, 470 pages, cover art by Luke Preece. Simon Bestwick has been publishing horror and crime stories since 1997. His short fiction is collected in A Hazy Shade of Winter and Pictures of the Dark. His novella "The Narrows" received a nomination for the British Fantasy Award. His previous novel Tide of Souls was set in the Tomes of the Dead universe.
The Faceless takes place in a sleepy town in Lancashire, in northwest England (where Bestwick lives), and involves strange masked figures appearing out of a heavy mist. In the first 25 pages, we meet Eva Griffiths, who is struggling to support her daughter Mary and her unemployed and depressed husband Martyn. But Eva is killed when the "faceless" figures appear and Martyn is soon institutionalized in a home called Roydtwistle, so the job of caring for Mary falls to Martyn's sister Anna, a closet lesbian with her own history of mental illness. We also meet Detective Chief Inspector Joan Renwick, and we read excerpts from the testament of Lance-Corporal Cuthbert Winthrop, who took a severe shrapnel wound to the face in World War I.
Shadow's Master: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 309 pages, cover art by Michael Komarck. Shadow's Master is third in a trilogy, following Shadow's Son and Shadow's Lure, Jon Sprunk's first published novels.
The hero of the Shadow Saga is Caim, an assassin with a mysterious background and the ability to summon shadows, to lethal effect. By the opening of Shadow's Master, Caim has begun a quest to the desolate, perpetually dark northern reaches of his continent. He travels with three human companions and with the sensual spirit Kit, whom only he can see. Caim has left behind Josey, a queen carrying his child. Josey leads a company of soldiers north to find him, but it is doubtful they can catch him.
The Battle: It took me a few pages to settle into both of these books. The profusion of English idioms in The Faceless is difficult at first for a Yank, but I settled into the characters' cadence before long. Similarly, Sprunk has on over-the-top delivery that is offputting initially (e.g., "The priest licked his lips, which continued to wriggle like two albino worms."), but it's a deliberate stylistic choice that I think serves the story well.
After 25 pages, I'd be happy to continue reading either book, but forced to make a choice, it comes down to this: Through four chapters, Sprunk has given me little indication what's at stake for any of his characters. In particular, I have no clue why Caim is traveling into the North. Even his companions don't seem to know what they're doing there, although they are apparently content to follow Caim wherever he pleases. Similarly, Josey strikes me as a pleasant enough character, if a bit naive and self-centered, but aside from carrying a torch for Caim, I don't yet know what conflicts she faces. No doubt this partially reflects that Shadow's Master is third in a trilogy and I haven't read the first two books, but even so I should like to have picked up more hints or reminders by now of what the story is about.
I know what The Faceless is about: strange, dangerous figures descending on a quiet English town. Apparently these ominous figures are related somehow to veterans of the Great War. Bestwick introduces this conflict through a set of interesting characters, and he establishes early on why the appearances are meaningful to his characters. When Anna goes to pick up little Mary from school, the faceless appear outside the classroom window. They leave without doing any harm, and nobody yet knows they were responsible for the death of Mary's mother, but Anna is shaken, because the figures are familiar to her. The first 25 pages end with Anna driving Mary home and asking her about the strange people:
"Were you frightened?"This is a terrific hook to end the first 25 pages, leaving me with a compelling desire to keep reading.
"No. I know how to deal with nasty men like that."
Anna had to laugh. "Oh do you now?"
"Yeah. Kick 'em in the goolies and run. That's what Mummy--" She stopped.
Anna almost ruffled her hair, but didn't. Mary was sunk down in her seat, looking dully out of the window. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter -- older, even. "We shouldn't tell Daddy about this, should we?"
"No," Anna said. "Probably not."
* * *
She let the music fill the car, focused on that and driving Minnie the Micra safely back across town. Better that than thinking of thin, immobile faces, black cloaks blowing tatters around bodies of sticks; she'd seen them when she'd been at Roydtwistle. Her and no one else. Because back then, she'd been insane.
THE WINNER: THE FACELESS by Simon Bestwick
The Faceless moves on to the second round, where it will meet The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod.
To see the whole bracket, click here.