Sidewinders, Robert V.S. Redick (Talos 978-1945863608, 672pp, $25.99) July 2021.
Worldbuilding has developed a bad rap lately. The meticulous and detailed creation of another realm “beyond the fields we know,” with novel cultures, languages, religions, history, geography, flora and fauna, is somehow deemed oppressive and pedantic and tiresome. Well, duh, yeah—if it’s done badly and ham-handedly. Like any tool in the writer’s toolkit, worldbuilding can be employed deftly and cleverly—or bluntly and stupidly. But in my estimation, worldbuilding—done right—remains one of fantastika’s big enticements. Who among us has not reveled in the tactile reality of Middle Earth or Arrakis?
All of this prelude is intended to affirm that Robert Redick is a master of worldbuilding, giving us in his portrait of Urrath a heterogenous, fascinating landscape, rich in contrasting cultures, replete with thick backstory. But all of it is doled out painlessly in specific and specifically emplaced amounts that do not detract from the magnificent story flow. And moreover, the worldbuilding as such is there only to serve the development and narrative arc of some deeply rendered characters, whose fates are paramount in the reader’s heart and eye. The end result is the creation of what fantasy does best: relatable yet uncanny personages moving through incredible adventures in lands never before imagined.
The tale began in Master Assassins, a volume I reviewed for Asimov’s. In those pages I said:
Redick’s land is something of a Howardian place, full of the same rough glamour as the Hyborian Age. Ghouls and deserted ruins, swordplay and oppressed peasants, deadly theocracy and dramatic pursuits. There’s also a slight vibe of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the action. But at the same time, the book feels utterly contemporary and hip….
Redick’s powers of invention in this book are superb. He manages to reinvigorate his chosen mode of heroic fantasy by sheer force of description, his language always muscular, vibrant and well-calculated. The cast of characters is vast and believable…and you will thrill and flinch at their difficulties. The pacing of the narrative is headlong, and 400-plus pages feels like a novella.
I am happy to report that all of this holds true for the second installment, except that with 600+ pages the book does feel a tad more weighty and slightly less fleet-footed than its predecessor. But no matter, for the tale continues to fascinate.
To summarize: brothers Mektu (foolish, addle-pated, vain yet resilient and witty) and Kandri (responsible, clever, bold, angsty) are in flight from their homeland, chased by elite killers dispatched by their ruling Prophet. The brothers bear a document which contains the secret of curing a centuries-old plague, and they must deliver it to the impregnable city-state of Kasralys, where Kandri’s old flame Ariqina lives. But Kasralys is about to be besieged by the rival nation of Shôlupur. The introduction of these two freshly seen places brings along great new characters and subplots. In Shôlupur, we get the insanely sadistic King Grapahir, his conscientious and rebellious general, Therel Agathar, and the Machiavellian Eyelash Thruko—he of the perfect Vancian moniker. (Or could he hail from Zimiamvia?) Thruko is working for the secret masters of Urrath, the Xavasindrans, who are covertly manipulating the affairs of mankind. (More about them to be disclosed in the final book, Siege, I take it.)
In Kasralys, the main actor is the thoughtful and altruistic, yet tough-minded, Lady Kosuda, Chancellor of the city.
In intermittent chapters, we bop back and forth between these two rivals while Kandri and Mektu are very busy elsewhere. They still have to cross the Sumuridath Jal, a variegated wasteland stuffed with more hazards and obstacles than a dozen D&D quests. New characters emerge here as well, mainly the noble and ultra-competent caravan master Ifimar Jód.
Now, devoting almost 600 pages to this crossing—which occupies a subjective few weeks at most for the cast—might seem excessive. And truth be told, I did sometimes long for the boys to reach their destination sooner. But ultimately I think Redick’s strategy works, simply because he also uses the journey to do some big plot reveals, and to transmogrify the characters in a crucible of strife and betrayal. The dynamic engine of the book—the relationship between the brothers—undergoes multiple variations. And the female questers, Eshett and Talupéké, also are put through their changes. And of course, Redick gives us so many incredible set pieces, such as a battle atop a giant barrier wall, encounters with giant spiders and flesh-burning worms, and, my favorite moments, an interval of quiet at the Weeping Rock oasis. This interlude of safety and peace has a feeling like the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” moment in The Wind in the Willows, or what the hobbits feel in Lothlórien. The Weeping Rock oasis is populated by, basically, a tribe of fey creatures, the Nachasp, and Kandri falls in love with one of them, Fiasul. But such a refuge can never be permanent when a quest is yet unfulfilled.
By book’s end, not to make any troubling over-disclosures, Kandri finds himself entering Kasralys, with his obstacles less overtly gruesome yet no less potentially fatal.
The book’s title is a characterization of the brothers made by a traveling companion: “You slip through death’s buttery fingers, every blessed time…. You’re like a pair of Gods-damned sidewinder rattlers.” And indeed, despite their intentions and attempts to Do the Right Thing, Kandri and Mektu have a bit of Jonah quality about them, and a sense that they might be more chess pieces than players. I eagerly await the concluding revelations of Siege, to learn whether they can redeem themselves and transcend the fantastical burdens heaped on their broad shoulders.
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