Forbidden Planet beckons, and Nik tells me that I've worked too much again, this week, what with more books in the mind-mill for AR and BL!
So, this is just to say that we both admire Matthew Farrer beyond anything that we can adequately express in a couple of sentences. We are beyond delighted that he has read and reviewed "Triumff", and here are his thoughts.
TRIUMFF - Her Majesty’s Hero, by Dan Abnett
It’s raining. It’s pouring. London is very much the worse for water, and as the little tour that opens Triumff shows you how bad things are there it also shows you what sort of London you’ve stepped into: a city of wooden buildings, wagon-rutted streets, cock-fighting pits, overflowing sewers and oddly underdressed nuns. Foul weather or no, it’s a jaunty, amused little expedition: you can feel Dan getting into the rhythm of his prose, feeling the saunter and spring in its step, seeing the gleam in its eye. It’s an intro that gets you into just the right frame of mind to meet our hero. Who is, of course, in the process of duelling for his life.
Sir Rupert Triumff, seafarer, Constable of the Gravesend Basin and celebrated discoverer of Australia, was commanding over a yard of sharpened metal of his own. His black locks hung in ringlets around his brow, his shirt had acquired two extra slits since he had put it on that morning, and he was humming a song about the Guinea Coast for no real reason at all. Triumff had once read the title page of Vegetius, owned a risible translation of Livy, and often quoted Caesar, even though he had never been within ten feet of a copy. He was not, at that stage, entirely sure what day it was.
It’s no great spoiler to say that Sir Rupert manages to survive the end of the duel, albeit neither undefeated nor unscathed, but even as the clouds clear over London you can tell they’re gathering over Triumff. We get a short course in the world the story has led us into: Queen Elizabeth XXX sits on the throne not only of England but of the Anglo-Hispanic Unity, a superpower that has dominated both Europe and the New World for centuries, aided by the rediscovery of Magick during the Renaissance and the incorporation of “the Cantrips and the Jinx” into the natural philosophies of the Church. And eavesdropping on a meeting of wicked conspirators gives a handy introduction to what certain parties want to do to this status quo (something rather bad), and hints at the magickal means they plan to employ to do it (something considerably worse).
Triumff thought he had problems before. The fallout from his expedition to Australia in search of new forms of Magick has put him in a deeply uncomfortable position at Court - the “attempts on one’s life” sort of level - and he’s wondering if and for how long he can conceal the real nature of what he found there, let alone the true nature of the native Australian who returned to England with him. These problems are about to get a sharp push down his list of priorities, though, when a terrible act of sabotage devastates the cantripworks that keep mighty London running.
The City was utterly, utterly dark. ... Usually, the City at night lies like a black velvet cape encrusted with winking sequins, spread across the muddy earth by some titanic Raleigh for some celestial Elizabeth. Tonight, even the poetry had been turned off. Everything down there, under the beating rain, was dark, and blind, and cold and frightened.
Before he knows it Triumff has been roped into a secret mission in the frantic defence of the kingdom, and as he and his little band of allies swashbuckle their way to the heart of the conspiracy we careen through swordfights, disguised identities, lute-playing, vile magick, a sedan-chair chase, the finer points of cat-nailing, and helping hands from an Italian genius, a fierce old hedge-witch and... something rather stranger. The whole adventure’s cheerful, crazy momentum carries it into a royal showdown with a hideous apparition and a literally explosive climax.
Triumff is the sort of story that tends to get described as “rollicking”, and in fact I’m pretty sure Dan used that exact word in one of his YouTube interviews recently. It’s a good word. Rollicking, roistering, roller-coasting. You can tell that Dan had fun with this. I’ve enjoyed and admired his Black Library work, but there’s a high-spirited gusto in Triumff that I don’t think I’ve really seen from him before. The sense of fun is infectious - if you read this book in company I predict you’ll be regularly tugging your companions’s sleeves wanting to share the bit that just got you chuckling. The writing has the occasional shade of Kim Newman, a touch of Blackadder and a few passages that put me in mind of Pratchett, but while you can catch Dan’s nods to some of his tastes and influences this remains indisputably an Abnett novel. It has Dan’s trademark crisp, pacy prose, his skill at evoking scenery and image, and his deft switches of direction. He has an easy confidence in shifting between his cast as their subplots and trajectories converge, bringing in minor characters for scenes that help broaden the picture and give backdrop to the main story, and changing gears from high slapstick to mournful or macabre. Dan’s prose is like a master fencer’s technique: however frantic the pace may seem, if you look carefully you can see how poised and controlled each movement actually is. Triumff also re-uses a technique from the Ravenor novels, switching between first and third person, with one Mr Beaver of Fleet Street providing commentary on the events as they unroll and occasionally stopping to address the reader directly. It’s a conceit that generally worked for Ravenor but actually works better here: it’s better built into the way the story is framed, and more suited to the amiably unruly feel.
In a garret on Fleet Street, your humble servant, the author, Master Wllm Beaver, sat, scribbling away by the light of the single overhead lamp. It was a piece on “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Hose”, as I recall. It was destined never to be finished. My HB pencil had just broken, and a rummaging search was underway in the drawers of the desk for a clasp knife with which to resharpen it before item four (“You can wear it on your head if you seek to obtain money with menaces from a Banking House, Real Estate Society or Postal Depot”) slipped from my mind.
Triumff grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck early on and drags you along at such a pace that you can take the rough patches in stride, but in fairness, the rough patches are there. The main characters are sharply-drawn and endearing, but the supporting cast feels a little overstocked, and I found myself sometimes having to backtrack to earlier scenes so I could keep some of the characters straight in my head. The various subplots are handled well during the body of the book but there were rather a lot of them jostling for resolution at the end, and that meant that not all of them had satisfying payoffs and robbed the ending of some of its energy. There’s also a connection between an early scene of New World shamans and a subsequent character with a role right at the climax (be spoiler-aware when discussing this in the comments, please) which may have been intended as a deliberate bait-and-switch surprise but which ends up feeling disjointed.
None of this means that Triumff is less than a pleasure to read. I was busted more than once sneakily reading it while I was supposed to have my laptop open for something else entirely, I’ve read bits out from it to family and friends, and am very much looking forward to it hitting the shelves so I can start comparing favourite moments with other readers. It’s been great to see what Dan can do when he stretches his stride to the fullest.
So far no Angry Robot book seems to be anything like any of the others. I’ve now sampled the shuddering psychological wringer of Slights, the hypodermic-sharp post-cyberpunk of Moxyland and now had my swashbuckle dialled up to eleven for Triumff. Dan’s next book for them promises to be something different again, and I look forward to enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed this.
He saluted me, and strode away down the gravel path. As he disappeared from view behind the stable arch, I could hear that he was humming a song about the Guinea Coast.
That was the last time I saw him.
Until the next.