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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover
(Del Rey, $16.00, 725 pages, paperback; 3 April 2001.)

There are ways to raise a reviewer's spirits, but putting in front of him a book that has 725 large pages covered in smallish cover scanprint is perhaps not one of them -- even if the book in question has a Dave McKean cover and is very nicely produced.

However...

This long novel seems undecided as to whether it should be a science fantasy or a horror novel of that variety which horror devotees call "visceral". As a science fantasy it has a fair amount of interest; from such a viewpoint, it is marred by the copious bucketloads of grue that Stover feels constrained to tip onto the page at fairly frequent intervals.

In a not-so-distant future the Earth is ruled by multinational conglomerates, governments (and democracy) having fallen by the Darwinian wayside in the aftermath of cataclysm. One of the most powerful of these conglomerates is the Studio, whose business is entertainment of the masses through "second-handing", a sort of ultimate virtual-reality trip whereby the audience can vicariously experience the generally violent adventures of heroes, or Actors. So far this is all pretty standard stuff, of course; what is interesting is that those doughties perform their mighty deeds in a sort of alternate reality where magic works, the Overworld, which we can regard as a reified gameworld -- as if all the RPGs ever invented had coalesced and substantiated. This notion that created realities can be brought into existence has of course been treated before -- Ralph Bakshi's 1992 animation Cool World is an obvious example -- but Stover, although he does not fully explore or indeed explain it, handles it nicely.

Unfortunately, an inevitable consequence of the Overworld having this nature is that Stover's attempts at world-building are scuppered from the outset -- it's by definition a generic venue, so new territories and peoples (elves, sorcerers, goblins, etc.) can be called into play at will, thereby destroying the coherence of the overall vision. But that is not too important, because Stover's focus is on the foreground -- on the mighty deeds themselves, not their backdrops -- so in a sense it's actually helpful that there's so little distraction from the world beyond them.

His world-building of the future Earth is much more interesting, and effective enough. The philosophy of that world is depressing; the fact that it is embraced by the character who is intended to be our hero, Caine (see below), is perhaps even more so:

There's only really two things about a man that matter: what he wants, and what he'll do to get it. Everythin' else we pretend is important -- whether you're tough, or good-lookin', smart, stupid, honorable, whatever -- that's just details.

Again, that is not an original philosophy; it is likewise not original to observe that this way lies the abyss. So much Stover implicity recognizes in his depiction of a future human society that is excruciatingly unpleasant -- caste-ridden, with the lower castes being used as cattle by the higher ones, and ever liable to be murdered by them, with somewhat less compunction than cattle are sent to the abattoir. Oops: I shouldn't have said "murdered". I meant: legally slaughtered, on the slightest whim of the commercial aristocracy, by the faceless Social Police, who are like Judge Dredd but not so vivacious.

The greatest Actor the Studio has ever employed is Caine. His final adventure, in which he saved the goddess Pallas Ril (also an Actor) from the vile Overworld god Ma'elkoth is held to be the most excellent series the Studio has ever 'cast -- the epic of which all other epics are but pale imitations. Unfortunately, in defeating Ma'elkoth, Caine was stabbed through the spine and now, a cripple, is resigned to spending the rest of his life back on Earth as a Studio executive. At least he has the consolation of being married to Pallas Ril during the six months of the year she's not off on the Overworld being a goddess; the not so good part is that their marriage is less than joyous, being gummed together -- where gummed it is -- by Pallas Ril's six-year-old daughter Faith, conceived just before Caine and Pallas Ril got it together but accepted by him as a full daughter.

Also back on the magicless Earth is the god Ma'elkoth, stripped of his goddish abilities because out of the Overworld, and retained as a sort of museum exhibit. He and Caine have become in an odd way almost friends, although each would still gratefully destroy the other.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Studio bosses -- who are by now subsumed into a sort of hive mind and use as their physical avatar a flesh-eating rapist necrophiliac zombie called Kollberg -- decide they must conquer the Overworld, and to further this end start a plague there of the deadly virus HRVP, which turns people into psychopaths before their protracted and ghastly deaths. (The fact that HRVP has the same effect on the Overworld's various Folk as it has on human beings is a minor puzzle.) Pallas Ril makes an unscheduled trip back to the Overworld to try to stop the rot; the Studio governors force the crippled Caine to follow her and to lure her to her death at the hands of yet another ready-erectioned cannibalistic zombie (Great Value! Two Zombies For The Price Of One! Buy Now While Stocks Last!); Ma'elkoth forces the Studio governors into the position where they must send him along as well, and intends to capitalize on the situation to regain his place in the pantheon.

It's not giving much away to tell you that, after several hundred pages, Caine wins and Ma'elkoth loses.

All this is told at incredible length, but Stover is a good enough writer that ploughing through Blade of Tyshalle is not nearly so arduous a task as might be imagined -- although the first two hundred pages or more are a bit of a struggle. The reason the tale is so long in the telling is that everything -- event, emotion, decision, whatever -- is treated in exorbitant detail. This lapses into straightforward overwriting less frequently than it could; only because the book is so long does the total number of such lapses begin to mount intimidatingly up. Here, for example, is a description of someone getting hurt:

Then it [the pain] entered him with power: into his eyes, down his throat, in through his nose, his ears, ripping open his rectum and jamming up the length of his shriveled penis, forcing into him with howling lust; it filled him to bursting, swelling him from within, stretching him thinner and thinner like a weather balloon expanding toward destruction, while it dissolved and digested his guts, his heart, lungs and bones, everything within the stretching membrane of his skin. His eyeballs expanded, threatening to burst from his face, to explode from the pressure that built within them.
He screamed in pain as he squeezed his eyelids shut, trying to keep his eyes in their sockets by sheer strength...

...and so on. It's all rather reminiscent of a Tex Avery character having a nasty accident with the zip of his fly. But, more to the point, it's 119 words where perhaps 20 or 30 might have done.

This is a flaw typical of the worst "visceral" horror novels, of course -- the lubricious dwelling on the minutiae of suffering or the spilling of noisome bodily fluids. And bodily fluids there are a-plenty in this novel: people ooze, splatter, erupt and trickle shit and piss at the drop of a hat -- usually because their recently chewed-off head is still in said hat. Most of the Overworld venues into which Caine and the other characters venture smell strongly of blood, piss and shit, even without there being other evidence of recent mayhem. Anyone actually being killed onstage is likely to produce a torrent.

Now, there are few who would dispute the existence of piss and shit, but one begins to wonder if in the Overworld there are any other smells at all. And these "visceral"-horror excesses of expression are to be discovered in all the other parts of the book as well; back on Earth the interplay between individuals in even seemingly quite humdrum circumstances is so shot with extreme action and reaction, both verbal and physical, that it often begins to seem that a kick in the balls has become a conventional conversational gambit.

The same extends to the book's characterization: although Stover seems uncertain of his female characters, who somehow never become more than names, his major male characters are not just important to the scheme of things -- which would be fair enough, because that's why they're the protagonists of the novel -- but players of literally world-shaking and -destroying powers and capabilities, conflicts between them escalating to Olympian proportions. Even the single human character with whom one might in any way sympathize in real life -- in fact, he's probably the only one who wouldn't immediately be locked up as a dangerous psychopath -- becomes (through adoption by and subsequent demise of the appropriate monarch) the King of the Elves, thereby adding infinitely to his Earth-inculcated magical abilities so that he joins the rest of the world-busting crew.

A further component of this "hyperbole of idea" -- another symptom of the bad horror novelist at work -- concerns the amount of damage our heroes can sustain and yet still continue plugging gamely on. In our parody horror novel Guts, Dave Langford and I lampoon this particular trope, and I hope I'll be forgiven for quoting a relevant passage here because it pinpoints so exactly what I'm talking about:

[Sir Jake's] palms were sweating, and his whole crotch area was clammy with tangy-smelling urine. Blood and pus drenched his clothes. His hair was a tangle of vomit and saliva. Suddenly one eye plopped from its socket and dangled on its stalk, giving him a disorienting close-up view of his chin. A sharp-clawed paw had ripped his flesh all the way down his spine, revealing the ivory-white of his vertebrae and shearing off one buttock almost completely, so that it dangled over the back of his chair, held in place only by a flap of skin. A monumental impact against his chest had squirted his right lung out through his nipple to fill his inside jacket pocket (bad anatomy but bloody good imagery, his keenly honed journalist's critical faculties murmured approvingly). His left foot had been bitten off entirely, and the bone of the ankle scattered like talcum powder across the floor. And sometime during the melée his right kneecap had been detached and hammered with skull-splintering force into his right ear, rupturing his eardrum and penetrating his brain.
But he felt great!

Again to nod to Tex Avery, there comes a point at which excessive violence transcends horror or disgust and instead becomes hilarious. The various good guys in Blade of Tyshalle suffer damage beside which the luckless Sir Jake's seems hardly worth slapping on a sticking plaster for, yet persevere pluckily nevertheless. Caine starts off being almost entirely paralysed from the waist down, so he's in bad enough shape before repeatedly having bones shattered, getting his teeth smashed out (had I but world enough and time I'd go through and check how many of the characters have their teeth smashed out more than once), being thrown in this mangled state full-tilt into stone walls, developing sores that, untreated, fester and pullulate ... yet on he quests. More than one character goes further, meeting a graphically violent death; yet in some way or another is restored to life. (There are fantasy/sf scenarios in which this is legitimate and indeed may be fundamental to the setup; but that is not the case here.)

The justification for Caine's bewilderingly tenacious grip on life has already been touched upon: he is able to do so because prepared to do/endure more than any other man to achieve what he desires. Politically speaking, this is an extreme right-wing viewpoint, as espoused by those who blazon that we all have an equal opportunity -- if only we try hard enough and have the gumption -- despite its being blatantly manifest that this is not the case; a reductio ad absurdum would be to tell a quadriplegic that s/he could beat Ben Johnson for Olympic Gold if only s/he tried a bit harder. It's the philosophy promoted by the self-proclaimed "iron men" who destroy nations and annihilate whole peoples while being singularly unwilling to engage in a one-on-one confrontation of any kind themselves. And such notions emerge with alarming regularity in Blade of Tyshalle -- which is not to say that the author himself is fascistic but that, through his fervour of brute-force hyperbole, he leads himself narratively into philosophical positions that might repel him in moments of greater sobriety. Here is even our sympathetic character, the new King of the Elves:

This is a war that is fought every day in every land; this is a war that began with the birth of life itself. This is a war the best of us fight in our hearts: a war against to get along, you go along. A war against us and them. A war against the herd, against the cause. Against the weight of civilization itself.

What Stover is presumably trying to say is that we should strive against the sort of unthinking acquiescence by the people that perpetuates the reign of the tyrant. No quibbles there; Sinclair Lewis expressed the point exquisitely in his novel It Can't Happen Here (1935) when he had his hitherto acquiescent protagonist Doremus Jessup, suffering under the yoke in a Nazified America, reflect that the problem was that "we are all Doremus Jessups". But so carried away is Stover by his own prose that suddenly he's echoing the Nazi notion that civilization must be torn down if it is ever to be improved, while at the same time deploying the Nazi trick of depersonalizing those segments of society (here, "the herd") whose untidy presence complicates the ease with which the Simple Solution might be emplaced. Through passages like these one aches to pick Stover up by the lapels and shake him until he recognizes that we cannot all be the titanic, mighty-thewed heroes of Sword & Sorcery novels.

This is a fairly long review of an exceedingly long novel, and much of the comment has been negative. This may give a wrong impression. Blade of Tyshalle does have strengths -- there are many plums to be discovered in its pudding, many originalities of thought and of fantastical imagination, while, as noted, Stover does have a genuine storytelling ability that hauls the reader through the hundreds of thousands of words of his tale; it is an infinitely more worthwhile book than any number of the slab fantasies that warp the shelves of your local bookstore (indeed, if this were not the case it might be argued that this book wouldn't have generated such a long review!). One yearns for the time when Stover will acquire the discipline to abjure the gratuitous gross-out, and for the novel he will one day write in which the quality of his subject matter rises to match that of his other abilities.

In short, you could do a lot worse than read Blade of Tyshalle, but Stover could have done a lot better than write it.


Review by John Grant.


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© John Grant 21 April 2001