Monday, February 06, 2012
Kultus by Richard Ford (Book Depository, Powell's Books, Indiebound) is the debut of a new secondary-world urban fantasy series with a steampunk setting and an undercurrent of dark magic and demons. I can see how this will appeal to some audiences, but for me there were too many flaws to overcome the potential.
Thaddeus Blaklok is something of an underworld badass. He’s got a nasty reputation and apparently the skills to back it up. His demonic employers have tasked him with acquiring the Key of Lunos – only he’s not the only one looking for it. Blaklok finds himself up against a few demonic cults, the Judicature (police) and various gangs of the underworld as he carves a path of destruction through the dark streets of the Manufactory.
First, let me say that this book has potential, but that potential doesn’t rise up until far too late in the story. The setting is well formed – it’s dark, layered and a fun sort of steampunk. The interaction of demons with humanity and the only barely mentioned church is a great backdrop. And everyone loves an anti-hero.
However, the beginning of the book in particular has a number of flaws. The prose is over-written and interspersed with clumsy info-dumps. The descriptions are evocative, but they go at least one step too far and often end up contradictory as a result.
He closed the window and fastened the latch. Pausing a second more to look out at the vast metropolis, he suddenly caught sight of his image reflected in the glass. Beuphalus had never been a handsome man but he had always prided himself on personal grooming. Alas, the years were beginning to catch up with him and soon no amount of preening and trimming would be able to halt the onset of age. It was in that moment he that he saw his own reflection was not the only one caught in the window. Someone was standing behind him, just visible in the shadows. Someone…or something.
This passage isn’t all that damning on its own, but the cumulative effect of page after page of this sort of writing drags on. And then we come to the primary point of view that we get, that from Blaklok.
There was nothing else for it, he needed advice. First of all he needed to know exactly what he was dealing with. What was this bloody Key and why was it so important? The rest he would figure out as he went. After all, how hard could it be? The Repository’s safeguards might be considered insurmountable by its custodians, but then again they had never tried to stop Thaddeus bleeding Blaklok!
And it goes downhill from there. Yes, Blaklok isn’t a very nice guy. Apparently he’s pretty tough, but the unsupported confidence and pathetic arrogance is just too much. And from there, we get to see Blaklok repeatedly fail, get beat up, captured multiple times, and nearly killed a few times along the way while that arrogance never goes away. Finally toward the very end of the book Blaklok suddenly starts using all of these powerful magical abilities that he hadn’t bothered to use when his life was just as threatened at earlier times in the book. It simply doesn’t fit together.
The depth that you get from the quote above is about as deep as Blaklok gets. That is until the very end, when we get just a few hints that there is actually reason behind his madness and perhaps something even interesting about him. I really don’t have the desire to read about some arrogant asshole without any real motivation. But someone with a conflicted past, someone in it for a greater purpose? Hell, it may be rather cliché, but at least there’s potential. It’s a real shame that this sort of hints didn’t happen until the last few pages of the book.
And finally, there is a distinct lack of female characters. Yes, the head inspector for the Judicature is a woman, but she is literally the only female character I can think of in the whole book. (at least who isn’t a whore). It’s promising that she’s not there as a sexual object or damsel to be rescued, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. I suppose that the world portrayed is a very male-dominated society, but the lack of women certainly doesn’t help the book out.
So, while there is potential, the flaws that plague Kultus outweigh the good. I think this book will probably be enjoyed by some people, but it didn’t work for me. Perhaps if I hear outstandingly good things about any sequels to come I’ll change my mind, but I’d be surprised.