Monday, March 11, 2013

Tim Lebbon's Dusk - Book Review by S.E.

DuskDusk by Tim Lebbon
S.E. Lindberg rating: 5 of 5 stars

The cover blurb from author Paul Kearney promised that Dusk Is Fantasy For Grown-Ups… An Excellent Book.” I agree and cannot think of a better topline summary.

For Grown-Ups? Yes. Dusk is chock-full of: explicit gore, adult sexual situations, profane language, alluring drug trips, etc. This book is not for young adults. It is also not for adults looking for a light read.

Is it Fantasy? Yes. A brief summary (minus the “adults-only warning”) would even seem to describe a typical young adult fantasy book:
-Naïve Farm Boy: Rafe is a central character, an orphaned farm boy who singularly holds the keys to bringing hope to Noreela (read “world”). There is a loose prophecy associated with his existence.
-Fellowship: Also, there is a band (a.k.a. obligatory fellowship) of unlikely individuals with unique skill sets that resemble the expected motifs (thanks to Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons): 1) vulnerable, naive farm boy; 2) a human thief; 3) a Shantasi warrior (read “Elf”); 4) a human witch; 5) a drug-addicted, miner (read “Dwarf”); and lastly another empathetic girl, a human scholar.
-Series Worthy: Lastly, this is the first in a series of Novels (the others: “#2 Dawn” “#3After the War: Two Tales of Noreela” “#4 Fallen” “#5 Island” )

Cliché or not Cliché: But this is not a coming of age novel, nor is it common fantasy fare. It is the first in a series for the horror-fantasy sub-genre that stereotypically works best in short stories, novellas, or single novels. But Dusk works well as a series opener, perhaps because it employs the framework of common fantasy series.

Clarifying “Magic”: Lebbon presents a strange world, Noreela, that has lost its “magic”; but he defines magic differently than what you may expect. This is a problem for some readers since there are many arguably magical things present in this magic-devoid world. This could undermine the conflict in the book (i.e. who cares if Rafe can bring magic back to Noreela if it is still a fantastical place?). The success of the book hinges on a satisfying demonstration of what magical means. So let me clarify to set future readers’ expectations:

In Noreela, the baseline magicless assertion still allows for:
-Out-of-body mind trips, telepathy, and mind reading (if you take the drug called fledge, or are a Mage)
-Seeing/sensing wraiths (souls disembodied from their corpses)
-Communing speaking with animals (ravens) is doable with alchemy and practice
-Swords that hunger for blood (these are nearly sentient swords that cannot be sheathed until sated)
-Being butchered alive without being hindered, well beyond the limits of biology and physics (Red Monk capability)
-Living hundreds of years (for some humanoids, Shantasi, Red Monks, and a select undead Krote warrior)
-Creatures like giant-hawks and metallic-tumbleweeds exist

So what does “magic” encompass? What is missing that is so valuable? Magic is akin to the Star War's Force, it being a limitless potential of energy. Here, it is inextricably connected to the land’s health. Without it, humans have turned toward apathetic lifestyles, dependent on drugs, without hope of regaining civility. With magic present, select individuals can horde the power and become a god (a Mage): a mage can heal people, raise the dead for sure…but more impressively a mage can control the flow of rivers, animate stone/metal/vegetation to raise armies of golem-like machines, control the weather and even time (well probably).

Lebbon delivers on his strange promises: For every strange perspective presented, for every conflict of importance, he closes the loop. He does so with bizarre, horrific style, but the motivations and workings of Noreela remain consistent. Read this, and even if you consider yourself a veteran fantasy reader, you will be taken to appealing strange worlds. Below are several excerpts that serve as taste-testers. If you enjoy these terrifying and dreadful appetizers, then you will enjoy Dusk!:

Crazy creatures constantly harass our heroes:
“The tumbler left an intermittent bloody track across the cleaned stone square as it rolled. Crushed into its plant-like hide was a second man, dead, pierced by the thing’s many natural spikes and hooks. One arm flipped free as the tumbler rolled, thumping the stone in a rhythm that gave that silent place a grotesque heartbeat.”

“A shape burst from the opening, a Red Monk, its decidedly feminine mouth wide open in a frozen grimace of agony and shock…its hood was snagged back by a spear of wood, and Kosar could see its bald head, veins standing out like worm-trail, red, leaking where they split the skin. Its eyes were wide and surely sightless, such was the rate of their expansion and the scarlet pooling of blood in their whites…”

Despair permeates the land of Noreela:
"Few in Noreela had any inclination to even come in [the library] and read a book, let alone await the opportunity to slink in and steal one when her back was turned. Sometimes she wondered whether there was any intellect left in the world where famine also starved the mind, and dust and fading gods ate away at the tenacity of the people… nobody would notice, and if they did they wouldn’t say anything. And if they did it would not matter.”

“[The machines] were all incorporated in some way, chopped and changed and altered as if those that had used them were frustrated at their lack of animation. The channels were there within these machines, the empty reservoirs and sacs and current routes that had given them the strange life they once lived, but they were dead. Dead as the sand beneath the dweller’s feet, dead as the air they exhaled, dead as the corpse Rafe saw in the gutter in one or two places. There was a fledger, his or her body twisted and ripped from whatever had killed it. There was something else, something that once could have been fodder because of its size, exposed ribs torn back and knotted by the accelerated growth, slabs of flesh and muscle ripped from its wet corpse…"

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