Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: Monument

Book Review: 'Monument' by Ian Graham

5 / 5 Stars

‘Monument’ first was published in hardback in 2002; Ace Books released this mass-market paperback version in March, 2005. The outstanding cover painting is by Jerry Vanderstelt.

I don’t usually review books published after the late 80s – early 90s, but in the case of ‘Monument’ I am making an exception, mainly because it’s one of the best fantasy novels published in the last 20 years, particularly in the sub-category of ‘dark fantasy’. It’s superior to any number of novels from authors like China Mieville, Tim Lebbon, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter Brett, Alan Campbell, Mark Lawrence, Brent Weeks, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, etc. etc.

And what makes ‘Monument’ all the more impressive is that it’s the first - and only - novel from Ian Graham, a bookseller who lives in a village in northern England.

(In an interview published online in 2008, Graham indicated he was working on a prequel to ‘Monument’, a work still under construction as of 2015… is likely that, since 2002, Graham is suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, which is unfortunate.)

‘Monument’ is set in Druine, a medieval world where magic exists, but is outlawed by the oppressive Pilgrim Church, whose Wardens have the power to summarily arrest anyone they suspect is violating the Church’s precepts. Heretics so apprehended are often condemned to a painful death, their heads mounted upon the trunk and branches of the Penance Oak in the city square.

The protagonist is a huge, ugly, unkempt man named Anhaga Ballas. Ballas is a vagrant, a thief and a drunkard. Ballas is not your usual fantasy hero; lice crawl through his hair and his food-matted beard, and the stench from his un-washed body leads gentler folk to avoid his company. 

Ballas is utterly amoral, and will quite happily knock an innocent senseless if it will allow him to steal enough coins for a flagon of rotgut wine and a dalliance with the cheapest of prostitutes.

As 'Monument' opens, Ballas is lying prostrate on a back alley of the city of Soriterath, the victim of a severe beating. He is rescued by a conscientious priest named Brethrien. When Ballas recovers his health, Brethrien sends him on an errand to the house of a scholar named Calden. There Ballas glimpses a jewel of unusual design and craftsmanship…..a jewel he endeavors to steal.

But as the unwitting Ballas is to discover, the jewel he covets is no ordinary trinket, but an artifact potent with the magic of Druine’s former inhabitants, the long - exterminated race of the humanoid Lectivins. And when the Pilgrim Church discovers what Ballas knows about the jewel, they will issue an Edict calling for his capture and execution, and they will pursue him over the entire width of Druine.

For Ballas, the only hope of survival rests upon fleeing across hundreds of miles to reach the northern refuge of Belthirran…..but no one he meets believes that Belthirran even exists……..

‘Monument’ is at heart a chase novel, built around a straightforward narrative that deals with Ballas’s efforts to escape the ever-tightening noose being drawn by the Church. Graham avoids the over-writing so common to many contemporary fantasy novels, and instead relies on a clean, unadorned prose style that, despite the book’s length of 452 pages, keeps the plot continually moving along in a true 'page-turner' manner.

Graham also relies on frequent episodes of violence to impart momentum to the narrative, acts of mayhem related in the sharp, crisp style reminiscent of the best crime fiction.

‘Monument’ isn’t perfect; its characters are overly prone to launching into extended speeches, and Ballas at times seems to lead so charmed a life that his encounters with his pursuers are predictable in terms of outcome. But what this novel does so very well is to merge the day-to-day reality of a medieval world, in all its gritty, nasty, and brutish glory, with the tropes and trappings of a fantasy novel. The elements of fantasy and magic that appear in ‘Monument’ are infrequent, but always well-placed and not contrived, giving the book the sort of grounding that is absent in many others of the genre.

If you have yet to read ‘Monument’, then it’s certainly worth picking up. And it’s also worth hoping that author Ian Graham finally will be able to deliver a followup volume.

1 comment:

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Can't figure out if this post is meant to be satire or not. That cover, along with the plot précis you provide, comes across as about the opposite of the innovative fantasy of the likes of Barker, Gaiman, and Mieville. (I'm not a huge fan of any of those three, but I recognize their originality, even if their craftsmanship often leaves something to be desired.) Monument sounds very dull and rather clichéd. But maybe it's just hard to convey why it stands out. If I tried to sum up Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun it might well sound clichéd and dull also (and he has been cursed with his fair share of pretty awful book covers). So I know how these things can be hard to convey.