Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Unbound Man

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

The continent of Kal Arna was once dominated by the great empire of the Valdori. Now only ruins and fragments remain of that greatness. But even fragments can be dangerous. There is a mysterious urn. Arandras Kanthesi has it, but is interested in it only for the clue it might provide to the identity of the man who murdered his wife. Clade Alsere wants it, for the help it might offer in his escape from the god who dominates his existence. Eilwen Nasareen knows nothing of it, but will soon become caught up in events surrounding it, events that threaten to ruin her life with the Woodtraders Guild and reveal her most terrible secret. As scholars, sorcerers, and merchants struggle for power, these three lives will intersect, and their shared desperation for freedom will have terrible consequences.

If the premise of Matt Karlov's first novel sounds broadly familiar, that isn't misleading: this is a novel very much in the tradition of contemporary epic fantasy with a gritty edge. But familiar doesn't have to mean derivative, and The Unbound Man manages the difficult feat of fitting into a subgenre without being trapped by it. The key to this, I think, is that Karlov's protagonists are less aggressively amoral than in some of the epics that label-loving readers have called "grimdark." Fantasy was dominated by heroes and then by anti-heroes, but Karlov's characters are neither: they're ordinary people, struggling to balance their desires and their morality. They do bad things, they justify them, but they're aware of the weakness of their justifications. This makes their moral struggles easier to relate to than those of murderous queens and sadistic knights, though the thematic points being made are not dissimilar. Karlov is interested in the line between appropriate and inappropriate moral certainty, in the way the perception of oneself as righteous can lead to just as much destructive behavior as conscious cowardice. That's not to say, though, that the book declines into facile moral relativism. The three protagonists of The Undying Man are drawn with empathy (and even in the world of gritty epic fantasy it's striking to find a novel lacking an out-and-out human villain), but their dramas are weighty precisely because it matters whether or not they're doing the right thing.

If there's a downside to Karlov's themes and characterization, it's lack of subtlety. The reader is constantly being told what the characters' emotional states mean, even when it's obvious from their current and previous behavior. At one point a character has a thematically-charged dream, and the text notes, "The dream's meaning was plain enough." Indeed... but the text goes on to explain it anyway. These explanations can feel especially grating because the characters' moral and emotional dilemmas are basically unchanging throughout the book, so that their implications would be obvious even with no hand-holding, let alone a constant stream of it. The climactic action in particular feels bogged down with on-the-nose statements of points that were already implicit. But the thematic resolutions are satisfying enough that they work despite being overplayed.

The themes are perhaps the strongest aspect of The Unbound Man, but no aspect of it is less than competently done. The prose is clear and readable, with diction that is only occasionally too contemporary for a pre-modern fantasy setting. The world-building is rich in detail, concerned largely with the daily life of the two major cities in which the novel takes place, but also suggesting a wider world that will likely come into focus in the two remaining volumes of the trilogy. Karlov's world-building is less atmospheric than that of the very best fantasy writers, less likely to produce a vivid mental picture or a sense of wonder, but it's enough to make the setting feel real and weighty. The magic system strikes what seems to me a good balance between "mysterious and inexplicable" and "so detailed it belongs in a role-playing game."

The plot is, it must be said, a slow-building one even by epic fantasy standards. The mysteries of the characters' backstories make the opening sections compelling, as readers begin to puzzle out how it all fits together, but once the general outline is clear, it takes a while for the action to kick into high gear. Part of the novel's emphasis on realistic characters rather than heroes is that the stakes are not at first enormously high, and the intrigues are less complicated than they might otherwise be. It's only in the last third of the novel, as the plotlines directly intersect and long-held plans are enacted, that events take on the usual feel of epic fantasy. But there's enough going on throughout to satisfy readers who don't demand superficial action every step of the way. And the denouement is both a satisfying resolution of this novel's conflicts and the beginning of a larger story that promises to extend this one's themes in intriguing and emotionally resonant ways. I'm certainly looking forward to the next book, and I suspect that, once they've experienced The Unbound Man, many other readers will be too. This is a fine debut novel from a writer with a great sense of how to use the tropes of epic fantasy in thoughtful and entertaining ways.

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