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The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor

by Sean Wright

(Crowswing Books, www.crowswingbooks.co.uk, £5.99, 150 pages, 2004. ISBN 0954437446.)

Dark Tales of Time and Space

by Sean Wright

(Crowswing Books, www.crowswingbooks.co.uk, £5.99, 150 pages, 2005. ISBN 1905100124.)

 

Double review by Nick Gifford

The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor by Sean WrightSean Wright has taken an unusual route. He publishes his own work through Crowswing Books which, in itself, is not unusual. In fact, it's increasingly common these days, as technology makes the mechanics of producing a book so much easier. What's unusual is that Wright does it well. The books are beautifully produced, with striking covers, making them lovely simply as objects. He promotes and markets them well, too, achieving good bookshop display and good press attention, culminating with his selection by Book and Magazine Collector as one of the world's fifteen most collectible children's authors. And what's more, the stories themselves are pretty good, too.

So much for context. The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor is a novel aimed at older teenagers, and the author promises up front that it pulls no punches -- a promise he keeps, as there's plenty of strong language, explicit violence and while the sex is barely explicit, it forms a strong undercurrent. Sounds good so far!

Lia-Va is a princess who has recently become the Chief of her people, after she killed her father in battle. She's a driven -- and addicted -- warrior on a quest for the twisted root of the story's title. She's fun enough, in her nihilistic way, but things get complicated, and far more interesting than the high fantasy quest this set-up had initially suggested, when the victor in a fight to be her bodyguard and "back-eyes" on the quest turns out to be an enigmatic, weedy, ball-scratching youth who never says a word.

This is a high-paced adventure with plenty of twists and turns. It rarely eases up, and despite its occasional flaws it's hard to put down. Wright is no prose stylist, but the pace of storytelling and the vivid and dark vision are striking. He's like a remix artist -- The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor is a mix'n'match of standard genre furniture given a few dark and innovative twists. There's a lightness of touch, too, with some lovely moments of wry humour: "Rule the court with a mighty blade of steel and tax the peasants for all you can get" are Lia-Va's father's dying words of advice.

The flaws? Occasional roughness of the writing: Wright is careful to get the input of others into his work before he publishes, but it's hard to replace good editors and copy-editors, and I think he'd benefit from the kind of discipline they would impose. However, my main "yes but..." with this novel was the nature of the quest itself: Lia-Va is obsessed by the Runeroot puzzle she's trying to solve but there's never a hint of what that puzzle actually is! I don't need it spelt out, but I wanted to know more than Wright ever let slip. Lia-Va clearly cared about the puzzle but, well, why should I? This puzzle is the thing that drives the entire story, yet it's also the thing we're not told about.

Another quirk with this book is that the author provides both an introduction and an afterword. Don't get me wrong: I love reading writers' thoughts about their work (indeed, I've interviewed Sean Wright for this site), but ... well, the start of a novel rarely seems the right place. I don't want Wright telling me up front that he hopes the book will challenge stereotypes and extend the borders of speculative fiction: I want to see him do these things through the story. Yes, I could just skip the introductory bits, but then I don't like skipping bits of books... Again, perhaps an editor might have guided the author away from this kind of indulgence.

But these things aside, Sean Wright was a real discovery for me, and I'll look forward to reading his other books. The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor reaches a moving conclusion, and refreshingly the author doesn't feel the need to spell everything out. We're left with closure, but also with a world, and lives, that continue, and with mysteries that linger satisfyingly. It's good to see someone doing something as well as this working outside the normal boundaries. Long may he continue to do so.

Dark Tales of Time and Space by Sean WrightHis next novel, Dark Tales of Time and Space, is an altogether different kind of beast: where Twisted Root... remixes quest fantasy for its raw material, Dark Tales... is an exploration of what happens after we die.

Hiphop megastar Joey Steffano is up on stage doing his crotch-thrusting thing (although we get just a bit too much verbatim transcription of his rapping, occupying most of the second page as it does) when he's felled by a sharpened silver dollar hurled by someone three rows back in the crowd. The rap king is dead ... long live the rap king.

In a sense, anyway: the rest of the novel follows what happens to Joey after his murder -- for disturbed souls like Joey death is a rite of passage, and it's not an easy one. Joey comes round on a train, which passes at first through a featureless landscape strangely like the English Fens Joey knew from childhood (not a traditional source of rap megastars, but Joey did grow up in the States after leaving the Fens). This is the slow train to Journey's End, and Joey is surrounded by a cast of strange characters, mostly transient, but one or two of whom recur, such as the enigmatic and charismatic Franklin J Merryhill who is clearly central to all that is going on.

When it hits its stride, Dark Tales... is grippingly mysterious, and long passages thrill with an air of difference, a fantastical vision quite unlike anyone else's. Unfortunately, it's also a patchy book, meandering for long passages, lingering for far too long on extended news reports from the real world which, while essential, could have been conveyed in a tiny fraction of the space and still carried the required impact for the story without dragging it to a virtual standstill.

The one thing that undermined Dark Tales... for me more than anything else was Joey himself, who just didn't convince me: telling us he has a "'hood mentality" isn't the same as really having one. We hear that he had a few fights, and some of his gang were killed in drive-by shootings, but there's no real convincing detail that brings this to life. His language, too, slips far too easily into British English rather than US English, let alone US 'hood English -- he's far more M&S than Eminem. Okay, he spent his early years in the English countryside, but he just doesn't come across as an authentic product of the 'hood as I think Sean Wright would like him to.

So my reaction to Dark Tales... is similar to my reaction to Twisted Root... There's lots of good stuff in there, a lot that's refreshingly different, both in what the author is trying to do and in how he is doing it, but neither novel quite pulls it off. In one of his other books it's entirely possible that he hits the peak promised in these two and sustains it, or maybe that's to come in a future book. I expect I'll be finding out.

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