Book #3: David Drake – Northworld: Vengeance

2253474What is NOT to love about the cover of David Drake’s Vengeance? We’ve got two robot suits of armour, battling in the snow with what look like either laser whips or red liquorice pipes. The robots have the wrongful anatomy and proportion of a middleweight Rob Liefield cover, but I think you have to forgive that because they’re LASER-BATTLING ROBOTS IN THE SNOW!

Be fair now, it’s clearly over-compensating for something.

It feels like the book is trying to convince the reader that there is some serious awesomeness contained in the pages, like every day they don’t read it they’re missing out on a fantastic explosion of awe that will seriously shake the foundation of their very being.

There’s going to be blow-by-blow descriptions of fights. There’s going to be blood. There’s going to be very little plotting or story, and what there is will be squeezed into heavily-worded chapters every 100 pages or so before we get back to the action.

I expect to love it, and I expect it to be shit.

So.. David Drake’s Vengeance is the tale of… erm… it’s a story about… there’s a guy, and another guy, and a magic mirror… I have read it, honestly!

Quite frankly, it’s hard to say what the book is about, if it’s about anything. As I expected, it’s a tapestry of sweeping landscapes and quirky homesteads littered with unnecessary violence, obscure genetic variations, exciting technology, and explosions that would make Michael Bay weep. They don’t have horses or pigs and cows but they have onions and squirrels and something that makes wool, and apparently they know Wagner was.

The closest thing to a plot is our supposedly main guy’s attempts to stop peace by going to war. Or stop war by going to a bigger war. Or spend 350 pages missing his one true love while sleeping with someone who can look like her at whim, before settling down with someone he’s never mentioned before, and only met through a magic mirror.

The world (or worlds, since apparently there are 9) of Northworld are punctuated by random and outlandish technology, delivered via engineers from a place that is (most unfortunately) called The Matrix. Scrying mirrors, dragonfly motorbikes and battling laser suits of armour are in abundance and drive the threadbare plot forward, but it is never truly explained how they work, why they work, and just what on earth this ridiculous Matrix depositing cool toys around the world(s) is all about.

Since the success of JK Rowling, a lot of publishers of fantasy and science-fiction insist that all new submissions feature a coherent, explainable system for their magic, technology, aliens or lizard-people and whatnot. This barrier against novels stuffed with random !COOL! and pointless tech often frustrates me as a writer, but as a reader of Vengeance I can see it as a blessing.

It’s hard to get behind the motivations of a people who inhabit a world or nine when you can’t comprehend the realities of those worlds themselves. The Matrix spews out tech as and when it is needed and no-one questions or wonders why and even the back-cover blurb resolvedly claims that it “defies explanation”. Characters in science-fiction should never be excited, scared or even aware that they are in science-fiction, but Vengeance shows their lack of curiosity as ignorance, and has them stumbling round a world with little care or knowledge of the real things of consequence.

Perhaps it is better to leave the reader to apply their own understanding to how a world works, and meet the text somewhere in the middle, but there is nothing to stop them adopting the laziness of the author and exclaiming “it’s just MAAAAGGGIIIIC” before giving up and failing to stretch their understanding any further.

Any links between the three divergent and weak narratives are not particularly obvious either, and there is no sense as the pages turn that the story is rushing towards any kind of climax, with the final coming together (for a bloody and unnecessary battle, of course) feeling like an arbitrary after-thought, all that keeps three lackluster short stories together long enough to pass them off as a completed novel.

I found myself simply not caring what happened to the characters, inserted where needed as they were, like the tech of which they made such frequent use, and I didn’t really care what happened next, possessed of a page-turning curiosity from only a writerly point of view to see what David Drake figured would come next, and what ridiculous tech would take us there.

I know what the central character’s name is and what he’s done and where he’s been but I never truly worked out who he is. All he seems to do is tell people off or encourage their better natures, almost like he disagrees as much as I did with the narrative content and direction. He has sudden rushes of realisation that seem at odds with what he’s doing, as if he’s becoming whatever person he needs to be for the task at hand. In a world where things were out of his control he’d be an excellent unwilling protagonist, buffeted and shaped by events around him, but since everything is happening because of him and at his request, he quite frankly he should show a bit more interest.

If a music video were a book…