The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs is another of the Gollancz fantasy debut works this year. It is, in essence, a book that picked the wrong protagonist. That might be a strange thing to say, but I’ll explain that statement later in the review. Overall, the book is a solid debut that set itself apart mainly through its “wild west”-like setting, but has to fight with its fair share of flaws. If you want a sneak peak, here you can find Chapter 1 and 2.
The book tells us a story about a steamship on its journey through the wild lands mostly unpopulated except for the elf-like natives, the stretchers. They aren’t nice elves though, but prone to murder and torment. What sets this setting apart from the wild west the most is that about everything is powered by demons. Those are enslaved and used similar to the energies used at that time. One large demon is forced to move the steamer and some other things, while bullets are basically enslaved lower demons that get freed on firing and propel the bullet out of the pistol while escaping their prison before being banished into their own realm again.
The story is told from the perspective of a pious half-dwarf, Shoe, that only uses his knives instead of the new killing machinery brought from the Rumans. Keep that name in mind, I’ll come back to it. What’s most infuriating about the protagonist is that the whole story actually seem to be about his friend Fisk, not him, so we see most things somewhat “from the outside”. The first time the protagonist is actually able to do anything important is at the 95% mark, so at the very end of the book. All the other time, he’s only an observer that has limited impact on the plot. I can’t shake the feeling that the book would be much more emotional and gripping if it was told from the partner’s perspective, who seems much more like a common hero. Not in that he’s the “knight in shining armour”, but rather the gruff soldiers disillusioned by life that only fulfills his duty and goes on dangerous adventures involuntarily.
Another problem I encountered is that there is absolutely no hook in most of the first half. Only at the very end of the first half of a very short book comes something important onto the stage, something that can decide the fate of the three superpowers that dangle in a very precarious peace at the moment. Before that, there is nothing to carry a reader further but a somewhat interesting setting and semi-likeable characters. Most of the first half is dwindled in making the aristocrats seem like bickering and dangerous fools, but much of the tension dissipates when the main antagonist of the beginning is taken from the stage early on. I can’t shake the feeling that something was lost with that decision.
The third thing I feel the need of making you aware of is that the names aren’t always doing the story a service. The main empire and player on the world stage are the Rumans, which are basically Romans if they’d had the ability to enslave demons and make them useable for things like firearms or even trains. What bugs me about it is the cheeky way of the name. Like “Oh, they are humans and they are kinda romans, so what do we call them?”. Rumans is not only a bad name because it feels like a cheap way out of the naming problem one might encounter when writing a book (and it’s by no means a crafty solution), but because whenever you read the name, you’ll instantly be reminded of humans, as if the dwarven protagonist would call them humans. Only after the “human” registered in your mind will you see that something is strange with the word and it actually reads “Rumans”. This doesn’t change for the whole book. The name simply reads jarring and misses his purpose by a mile.
It’s not the only name that doesn’t quite work. I have nothing against an author using real-world empires/people as their inspiration, but do you really need to name them Tchinee? It’s very apparent from all the description that this empire is similar to the chinese empires of old times, so why not call it something that sounds more smooth instead of seeming like a garbled version of china/chinese? I’d be less annoyed if such a naming convention (naming the empires after their real-world inspirations) was used throughout the whole book, but then I came upon Aegypt. Why isn’t that empire/country called something else?
There are more problems with the book than I don’t want to bore you with here. If someone is interested, you can always ask me for it here or on facebook/goodreads/twitter. One thing I need to mention is that the kindle versions has more simple mistakes than acceptable. When I find them while reading, a proofreader should have easily noticed them before. That’s his job, isn’t it? I’m a bit annoyed with the lack in quality in the ebook versions of some of the Gollancz debut books. This was most apparent with The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, and while The Incorruptibles wasn’t nearly as bad, it could have used one more proofread.
Conclusion: I think this needs saying, but the book is by no means a bad book. It’s not even mediocre, but a good book if you’re willing to look past a few flaws. The things I mentioned in my review might not be a big problem for you and so you might enjoy it even more than I did. While I can’t give this book a glowing review, I didn’t read it out of obligation, but rather because I got pulled along by the characters and plot. Maybe the reason I didn’t lay it aside is found in its very short nature, but I won’t brand the book with that explanation. Buy it if you like wild west/fantasy setting mashups and need a short book for in-between.