Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book review: A Throne of Bones by Vox Day

First things first- I'm a big fan of Vox's writing. His style of writing and argument was (and is) a big influence on my views on a number of topics. I read his blog daily, and his writing never fails to be thought-provoking, controversial, and often extremely entertaining. His previous books were highly persuasive and well-written; The Irrational Atheist is logically watertight and bulletproof, and was highly influential in my decision to abandon atheism, while The Return of the Great Depression greatly expanded my knowledge and understanding of Austrian economics and provided a highly rational and well-informed perspective on the ongoing Second Depression.

He and I have a few things in common, too- we're both INTJs, we're both geeks, we both really like good sci-fi and fantasy, and we're both smarter than the average bear. The differences, however, are huge- he's American, I'm clearly not. He's in his early forties, I'm not. He's a superintelligence, I most definitely am not- his IQ is somewhere north of 150, mine is maybe in the mid-130s. That extra two standard deviations makes a huge difference, trust me. And he's accomplished far more in his lifetime than any of us ever will, particularly in the writing department, where his writing has shown significant talent development over the years.

This is most evident when you read Summa Elvetica, which I actually bought long before A Throne of Bones and put down about a third of the way through because... well, I couldn't quite understand the point. I would actually recommend reading A Throne of Bones first, and then going back to Summa Elvetica. Somehow, the latter just makes more sense that way. I'll post a review of SE at some later date, as once one reads it, the growth and development of talent becomes really evident.

Based on what Vox himself wrote, the impetus behind ATOB was the hugely disappointing, turgid, and often unreadable unpleasant log laid by George R. R. Martin in the form of A Dance with Dragons. I remember reading that book and thinking, "what the hell was the point of those 1,100 pages???" Here's what Vox wanted to achieve with this novel:
So, I decided that I would write an epic novel and I would do it in one year.  It would be the same length as A Game of Thrones, it would be loosely based upon an interesting period in military history... and its focus would be on story, world, and character.  Nothing else.  No cleverness, no preaching, no subtexts, no reinventing wheels, no larger lessons, no deep philosophical insights.  In reading all the various would-be epics, I realized that most of them suffered from trying to do more than simply tell a fascinating story, which was also a problem with most of my previously published fiction.
Judging by the results, I'd say he's bloody well succeeded. I've read every one of the books in A Song of Ice and Fire, and this beats the pants off all of them. Even A Storm of Swords. Seriously. It's that good.

This book works because it doesn't pretend to be more than it is- an epic historical fantasy novel. The utterly depressing and frankly pointless moral nihilism of ASOIAF is nowhere to be found; in its place is a powerful and uplifting vision of faith and republican virtue, challenged as it is on every side by civil war, dark magic, and loss of faith. The frankly ludicrous "realistic" sex scenes in ASOIAF are thankfully nowhere to be found here; in fact, the sex is kept largely out of sight, which I think is a good thing, as it reduces the number of distractions significantly. It doesn't try to do anything other than tell a truly epic story. And if you're an avid reader of historical fiction and non-fiction, of the Ross Leckie/Robert Harris variety, then you're in for a real treat.

ATOB is set in the same intriguing fictional world of Selenoth as SE, a world that fuses the best traditions of the ancient Roman Republic with many of the ideas of the Christian Church as embodied by the Holy Roman Empire. The world is both strange and familiar, and as a literary device, I have to say, this is damned effective. I've read my share of Roman history too, so I really appreciated the little details that Vox put into the book. For instance, the scene in which Valerius Corvus observes the "coronation" (if that is the correct word) of the new Holy Father is exactly what I would expect from the martial and spiritual traditions of a Roman Republic, where god-kings were cast aside in favour of Republican rule, combined with the clear separation of Church and State that is a founding principle of Christian theology. The battle scenes are particularly effective displays of Vox's thorough command of military history; he switches almost effortlessly between individual perspectives of the horror of battle to large-scale tactical views of the conflicts, without losing coherence or purpose.

Three significant traits about this book really jumped out at me when I read it:

  • There is a real emphasis on dialogue, which seems to follow ancient historical patterns. As it turns out, this is no accident; I seem to recall that Vox recently pointed out that he literally re-worked whole passages of Summa Theologica into the dialogue (I might be wrong about the exact influence). Whatever the influence, it clearly works; the dialogue is powerful yet believable. The characters of Corvus and Marcus, in particular, benefit immensely from the emphasis on sound and solid dialogue. And even where Vox does his own thing, he does a great job of breathing real life into his characters; one particularly moving example is the scene in which Corvus spends some much-needed downtime with his infant granddaughter.
  • The presentation of evil is unflinching, but not black-and-white; the scheming of Severus Patronus is presented in a manner similar to the self-justifications used by modern liberals for their more boneheaded ideas concerning immigration and civil liberties, for instance, so you almost find yourself sympathising with him.
  • There is little of the "girrrrrrl power" nonsense that one finds in ASOIAF with the risible attempts of Danaerys Targaryen to deal with her own feminine nature. The character of the Dalarn, Fjotra, is really quite well done, and the author's own interest in Game shows up really clearly during her interactions with the Savondese Prince Karl; Vox does a great job of weaving concepts like female hypergamy and masculine frame into a background of a massive war against the aalvarg wolf-men.
This book isn't without its flaws. The same hacked-off, seemingly contrived method of ending the book that so knackered SE for me is present in this one too- the ending of the book was strangely unsatisfying. While I found Vox's take on Elves as beings of both spectacular, immortal power and terrible moral decadence to be highly refreshing, I personally thought that the character of Lady Caitlys Shadowsong could have done with a bit more development. She is one character that I find genuinely interesting, but her interactions with Valerius Marcus Corvinus (i.e. Clericus) seem rushed and forced. Also, I bought the Kindle edition shortly after it was released, and it was clear that the errata that Vox himself noted had not yet been fully cleaned up; this is irksome at times, but the material is good enough that I can overlook the occasional spelling or punctuation error.

Despite this, however, I strongly recommend ATOB to anyone who enjoys good high fantasy. This book is worth the effort and the price. Just make sure that you pick up one of the newer versions, because it will have been significantly cleaned up by now.

Verdict: 5/5

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