THE EYE OF STRIFE – Five Rivers Publishing (2015) – Find it here
By Dave Duncan – (Cdn – Victoria, B.C.)
Premise: The spectacularly barbaric barbarian Quarn rips out his battle-damaged right eye and shoves in a kind of red gemstone eye-substitute proffered by the great Father God. His followers consider this a rather decent omen and help him win the battle and go on to win a great empire. His heirs expand the empire further at the expense of their right eyes. Eventually the red eye is lost. Eventually the empire is also lost, reduced to a small kingdom. More than a thousand years after Quarn, the High Priest of the Father God gathers a group of likely suspects in the God’s ruined temple in a bid to find out the fate of the Eye of Strife. Does it still exist? And if it does, where can it be found?
I don’t read much fantasy, and the names of characters in the works I have read are often distancing, tending to make me stop, to briefly pull out of the story and question the need for a name like that. Quarn I can accept, and Kulf and Mona, as they are easy to keep in mind. Cuialfil sounds vaguely correct, in early dark age terms. Likewise Iliana. But Eamsoalie? Mostraliob Shal? Strikes me as meaningless, a stringing together of letters in a random manner just for the sake of something new, though not necessarily pronounceable. If you are going to do that, at least add something the reader can grasp, as in Thorthrup the Craven. I like that one. It was my secret name for myself for a while when I was a kid. Don’t ask.
But I soon caught on Dave was just being playful. And Dave exhibits a very dry wit when he’s being playful. For example:
“The only real clue we had was that Poanir’s son Juanian remembered Wolma’s brother-in-law the jade trader being called something like Nupoguylde Wab.”
“He was sure about the Wab, not the rest of it.”
By this point in the book I had already learned to look upon each new introduced character’s name as a kind of amusing game along the lines of what had Dave come up with this time? Oddly enough, viewing them this way allowed me to utilize them as names and not as full stops. Perhaps, with his vast experience in writing fantasy, Dave had hit upon this method to transcend the traditional difficulty of uncomfortably unfamiliar names slowing the reader down. By making a game of it, the reader hurries on to see what outrageously monikered character shows up next. Rather brilliant that.
As for the religion underlying the premise, the cult of the Father God is paramount. The legend and the visions experienced by many of the “pilgrims” in their various adventures would seem to argue that he and his counterpart, the Great Mother, are very real and present in this world. However, the Father God is worshipped under three guises: Skamp, the trickster God who can’t be trusted; Strife, the “let’s get what we want with extreme violence” battle God, and Smugg, the aging, wise, and cynical manipulator God. Turns out, no matter which of the Father “trinity” you swear allegiance to and serve, the divine bastard is liable to let you down whenever he feels like it. Seems religious faith and loyalty, no matter how sincere, can cost you big time when you least expect it. Very difficult serving difficult Gods. More Dave Duncan playfulness.
Each “pilgrim” present at the Temple of the Father God tells their tale in turn, which put me very much in mind of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Lends to the legitimate dark age/medieval tone of the book. All the stories, and characters, are interrelated of course. And what didn’t occur to me till later in the book, some of the “pilgrims” are lying, or at least hiding relevant information, not to mention trying to make themselves look good despite their bad luck and/or general incompetence. Still, you come away with a vivid impression of a world where you can’t really trust anyone and staying at home or venturing to travel are equally dangerous. (Well, yes, the modern world is rather like that too, but not nearly as entertaining as Dave’s fictional world.)
One thing about the book I particularly appreciated, as someone who loves archaeology, are the numerous “nifty touches” concerning the ruins of the monuments built at the height of the empire. By the time of this tale, virtually all the ancient monuments have been robbed of their statues (metal ones melted down, marble ones converted to lime), their dressed stone facings removed for reuse elsewhere, untended walls left to crumble, and so on. Even the great Temple, still in use, is in a bit of a shambles. For one thing, it’s main chamber 40 feet wide and 450 feet long, nobody, not even its architect, ever figured out how to roof it. Even at the height of its glory it was exposed to the elements 24/7. So now, at the time of this novel, the walls still stand, but are uneven and topped with trees and other luxuriant growth. Very cool. A pleasing image. And quite realistic, in terms of what actually happens when a civilization can no longer afford to upkeep its monuments.
And then there’s the problem of Divine retribution. Even the ruins get involved, in that one of the characters decides to take a leak into a harmless-looking clump of bushes that just happens to be growing atop (and hiding from view) a fallen statue of the Father God. Watch where you point that thing! An act of sacrilege in the course of relieving a full bladder. Seems Gods resent this sort of behaviour. Rather clever bit of unexpected bad luck, I thought. Actions have consequences. Always. Even innocent ones. Good point, Dave.
Rating: Great Fun. I guess I was in the mood for some rip-roaring fantasy adventure Conan style. It is an easy read in that nothing disrupts the flow of the narrative. Nothing pulls you out of the story. The shamelessly selfish medieval sense of honour infuses all the characters, places, and events with a refreshing credibility. It’s a fictional world that feels very real, and very weird. I like it a lot. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.