Friday, April 20, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Two Delights from Kevin Hearne

In which I review two quite different pieces by versatile author Kevin Hearne

The Squirrel on the Train, by Kevin Hearne (Subterranean Press)

My introduction to Kevin Hearne’s work was Iron Druid, so I was delighted to discover that the dogs belonging to Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, or perhaps the other way around, he belonging to them, have their own adventures. This one begins with a train trip to Portland, during which the dogs are terribly upset because there is a squirrel (die, evil squirrel!) on top of the train. Atticus explains that the wind shear will cause the squirrel to jump off and when they arrive, squirrel in place, of course the dogs conclude that all natural order, including the laws of physics, will now be overturned. Their fears are confirmed when an Atticus look-alike is murdered, and so the chase is afoot. A-four paws, that is.

This utterly charming novella showcases Hearne’s skill at whimsical humor and his versatility as an author.

A Plague of Giants, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey, 2017).

At some time in the past of this fantasy world, the balance of trade and power has been overturned through not one but two invasions of oversized warriors; one race being known to the others, quasi-Viking fire-wielders driven from their lands by a volcanic eruption. The second, strangers from over the sea, are mysterious and even more lethal. How these upheavals came about and were responded to is related in the present time through a bardic storyteller who assumes the likeness of various participants along the time line. In the present, we know that the giants have been defeated at a terrible cost, yet wounds remain unhealed and intrigues abound, threatening chaos.

This is a long, slowly-paced book that incorporates the stories of a large cast of characters from different cultures, much of it channeled through the central storyteller, with past and present timelines looping back on themselves. The world-building is amazing in itself, rich and complex, with each culture possessing its own form of magical gift (“kenning”) acquired through near-lethal trials. The individual stories are marvelous, the characters clearly distinct. My favorite is Abhinava Khose, born into a clan of plains hunters and unable to tell his family that not only does he never want to kill animals, but he is gay. He’s sensitive, compassionate, a natural leader, and unexpectedly courageous. The inner conflicts reflect and intensify the outer drama in his tale.

Read at a leisurely pace to savor the adventures of each person, the book is a delight. It’s not a tale to skim for “what happens next.” The ending is already established. However, that slowness, when combined with the length and complexity of the timelines, means it’s easy to get lost in the story of the moment and forget the multitude of details that have come before, to keep track of the cast of thousands and the sheer number of place names, group names, and so forth. In the ebook version I read, there are no maps or helpful lists, but there are series of charming portraits of important characters. Add to this the revelation that A Plague of Giants is only the first in a series means either loving the world so much you never want to leave it, or not experiencing the satisfaction of a complete story arc.

Kevin Hearne is an immensely capable author. A Plague of Giants and its subsequent volumes represents a highly ambitious project that I have no doubt he will carry on in a brilliant fashion. Besides the difficulties presented by the length and complexity of the book, I would have liked to spend more consecutive time with my favorite characters, each of whom surely deserves an entire book of his or her own.

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