A good story badly told is one thing; a shit story well told another; but a shit story told shittily is hard to praise. Yet I’d say the point about the lack of discrimination in fantasy reviewing is that it’s actually a lack of discrimination on the level of style and form. Too many fantasy readers simply lack all interest in the style and form of a book, are interested only in the content, or more narrowly only in certain hypertrophic brightly-coloured features of the content. ‘Rip-roaring’ can be a euphemism for ‘kinetic and violent, and since that’s all I look for I didn’t notice anything else about the book.
Although I didn’t get on with Kell’s Legend, I am willing to concede that it is a book that one could read purely for the ridonkulous action, clockwork vampires1 and prose so purple it’s heading into ultraviolet. I am less forgiving of Soul Stealers however, in which Remic decided to ignore consolidation in favour of even more plot, including the worst twist that I have ever read. With Vampire Warlords, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy ends with a bang in terms of large-scale vampire carnage but a whimper on almost all other fronts. Ignoring style and form only gets you so far, especially when you’re dealing with as many glaring faults as this book presents.
So you really want to know what happens? Right then. The Vampire Warlords have returned to the world and everyone else is pretty much fucked. Hell-bent on wiping out the vachines and turning everyone else into vampire slaves (not a plan with long-term prospects mind), the three Warlords head south to Falanor and take over the cities of Jalder, Gollothrim and Vor. Kell, Nienna and Saark2 survive their plunge through the mountain of Skaringa Dak and are rejoined by Myriam who has been released from the Dark Side with the death of the Soul Stealers. After Kell is persuaded not to run for the hills, he comes up with the master plan of recruiting an army from the inmates of the Black Pike Mines prison, most of whom were put there by him. Despite the efforts of one Jagor Mad (“…because I’m mad” p136), this barmy plan succeeds and Kell takes his army to fight the Vampire Warlords and send them all back to the Chaos Halls or die trying.
I was going to do a breakdown of the plot but there’s just so much of it, very little of which is any good. More importantly it would take about two thousand words which is a level of detail that is quite unnecessary and one that the book doesn’t deserve. What annoyed me more than anything was all of the inconsistencies that range across the trilogy and within Vampire Warlords itself. An example of each then.
In Soul Stealers, Myriam has a vision of saving Nienna from snow lions which stops Kell from killing her on the spot, but it doesn’t happen3. This either means that Myriam lied or because Remic simply forgot about it happening. As you might have guessed, my money is on the latter especially since there is no support in the text for Myriam faking the vision. Later on in Vampire Warlords, we are introduced to two new albino armies that appear alongside Harvesters. Wait a minute, I hear you say. Weren’t the Harvesters helping Graal to bring back the Vampire Warlords? Well, yes, they were. Perhaps there are multiple factions within the Harvesters, but once again Remic fails to address this concern within the books. The albinos show up to save Kell’s army from Kuradek’s Harvesters outside Jalder and then inform Kell that they are now at war with the Harvesters. Those two are just the tip of the iceberg.
Aside from that are more problematic failures of plotting and imagination. When Myriam rejoins the group, Saark notices that she is distinctly hotter than in her previously cancer-ridden state. Nienna naturally gets jealous and starts making bitchy comments to both of them, but keeps insisting to both Kell and Saark that she is no longer a child. Right. Myriam then shags Saark to give him the clockwork he needs to become a true vachine (in a way that sounds about as fun as cytoscopy) and promptly tries to kill him when he refuses to join her in deposing the Warlords and ruling the land. It gets better. Myriam has a(nother) change of heart and comes back to help our heroes. Saark shags her again after he had already moved on to Nienna (when Kell was conveniently absent), and Nienna sees it happen. How do you think Nienna reacts to this betrayal? Does she try to make him jealous or threaten to cut off Saark’s balls or ask Kell to batter the crap out of him (for a third time)? No. She simply sleeps with him as if nothing happened. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Andy Remic and his depiction of women in Fantasyland.
If I had to pick the worst offender, of which there were many, many contenders, it would have to be the explanation for Kell’s blood-bond axe Ilanna. After brief flashbacks to the Days of Blood and endless teasing us over whether Kell killed his wife Ehlana or not, we find out that yes, Kell did kill her. Except it wasn’t his fault because she made him do it. You what? It turns out that Ehlana had foreseen the coming of the Vampire Warlords and concluded that Falanor needed a hero capable of defeating them. In order to create such a hero, she cast dark magick that compelled Kell to kill her and trap her spirit inside his axe, which on the face of it makes about as much sense as the Bionic Commando game (2009) where the great reveal is that all of the bionic soldiers were selected based on having significant others who could be killed and their personalities embedded in the bionic parts to ensure that the soldiers would not reject them. Not only does this explanation contradict Kell’s Legend in which we’re told that King Leonoric’s father, Searlan, was the one whose magick created the blood-bonded weapons (in keeping with Remic’s lack of imagination, there were three of them and yet no mention of the other two), but it absolves Kell of all responsibility for being a bad person. He didn’t kill all those innocent people, his wife forced him do it with black magick. Pity the man who was saddled with an evil wife, a religious nutjob for a daughter (who incidentally gets turned into a vampire and then killed by Kell) and a grand-daughter with less than two brain cells to rub together. This is so abhorrant that I don’t even know where to begin. Frankly, Remic can go and take a fucking hike for trying such bullshit. He probably needs to look up the meaning of the word “misogynist” while he’s at it.
So, in conclusion, the Clockwork Vampires trilogy starts off terrible and finishes abysmally. Even if you are willing, and indeed able, to ignore style and form, it’s remains a trilogy that is utterly devoid of merit and one that gives both David Gemmell and low fantasy a bad name. I leave you with a quote that sums up my feelings of the whole trilogy in a succinct manner and the fervent hope that these reviews will convince other people to give these books and the books of Andy Remic in general a very wide berth.
Cockwork vampires more like.
1 Which I’ve been informed was “borrowed” from Guillermo Del Toro’s Chronos (1997), all the way down to the clockwork device that turns Myriam into a vachine in Soul Stealers
2 Who is still alive after having a Soul Gem carved out of his chest. Please note that Saark is still only part-vachine at this point (he’s missing the clockwork), whereas the prime vachine Anukis dies immediately after her Soul Gem is removed, as does the super-human Jageraw who can *time-travel*.
3 And in case you were wondering, it’s not going to happen either as Nienna gets killed because Remic decided that making her a jealous naive child wasn’t enough. She had to act like a fucking idiot as well by charging in to help Kell fight in the grand finale and falling on to his axe.
At the end of Kell’s Legend, King Leonoric and the army of Falanor had been defeated by General Graal and our heroes Kell and Saark were trapped on top of a ruined skyscraper by a horde of cankers. Kell’s grand-daughter Nienna had been poisoned and subsequently kidnapped by Myriam and the Jailers in order to persuade Kell to lead them to Silva Valley, where Myriam hoped that the vachines will give her clockwork to cure her cancer1. Meanwhile Anukis, having rescued Queen Alloria from her vachine captors, is back on her quest to find her father Kradek-Ka and has fallen into a whirlpool deep inside the Black Pike mountains.
In an attempt to avoid gratuitous sniping of the second book in the Clockwork Vampires trilogy, I endeavoured to concentrate on the plot and characters rather than minor issues such as style and form. This proved difficult for a couple of reasons, namely Remic’s writing manages to be worse in this book, relying heavily on italicised text for emphasis2, Capitalising The First Letter Of Place Names to make them seem more important3 as well as the ever-present…ellipses, and more importantly because the plot is complete bobbins. Let’s take the former as accepted and move on with reasons for the latter.
In this second installment, we discover that Graal has harvested Falanor’s population not to provide sustenance for the vachines in Silva Valley, but to provide the blood-oil required to summon the Vampire Warlords from their exile in the Chaos Halls. Graal and Kradek-ka intend to use the Vampire Warlords to remove the inferior vachines in favour of pure-blood vampires, which sounds like an interesting idea until you remember that both of them have worked on behalf of the vachine nation for over a thousand years. You’d have thought they would have come up with a plan a bit sooner right?
Druss and Sieben Kell and Saark escape certain death (with the intervention of a third party) and settle back into their routine of fighting bad guys, bitching about each other’s faults and walking to the next town. Sometimes the order changes but it’s very much a retread of the first book. Saark keeps up his banter about fine clothes, good food and succulent quims whilst Kell berates him for being a dandy/popinjay/peacock and generally whining about how things were better in the good old days when a man who wore pink shirts would be lynched. The bickering wasn’t all that funny in the first book and repeating the same jokes doesn’t make for any improvement.
Over to the female POV characters. I didn’t have much hope for Nienna and unsurprisingly she is still getting threatened with rape on a regular basis until Kell and Saark finally catch up with her and Myriam. Anukis on the other hand had finally broken free at the end of Kell’s Legend so I was interested to see where that would go. She finds her father only for the git to drug her up to the eyeballs to keep her placid for the summoning ritual. Elsewhere Alloria, having plucked up the courage to return to Falanor alone to find her sons, has to be saved from wolves by Vashell who has decided to try and atone for being an utter dick to Anukis. Female agency – what’s that all about then?
Moving the actual plot in a forwards direction, we discover that the summoning ritual requires three Soul Gems that have been embedded in three Guardian Souls and which only Graal’s twin daughters, the titular Soul Stealers can retrieve. This is all just over-complicating the plot for the sake of it. The origin of the Soul Gems nor the reason they have to be carried by people is never explained, nor is the fact that the Soul Stealers are mentioned in the ancient vachine holy book, the Oak Testament, in spite of the fact that the book precedes the birth of the Soul Stealers. The pair are by and large absent from the proceedings, which makes a mockery of the title, and yet are built up as this unstoppable force that Kell cannot stop, so of course magic is pulled out of Remic’s hat when Kell has to take them down.
I wasn’t going to bother quoting any of the book but this classic moment has to be read to be believed:
They stopped, snarling and drooling, and spread out, circling the donkey, great paws padding and claws drawing sparks from the hard ground, eyes fixed, travelling in lazy pendulous sweeps. Mary eeyored in panic, eyes wide, ears laid back on her terrified skull. Saark found his heart in his mouth, terror running through his veins.
“No,” he muttered, gripping his rapier as Mary hunkered down in terror, bunching her hind quarters to do the only thing she know how; to kick.
“Not the donkey,” wailed Saark.” (p251)
Saark, nobleman, unrepentant womaniser and expert swordsman expresses abject misery at the thought of his donkey being killed by cankers. Words cannot describe the epic fail here. Even if this was being played for comedy it would have been shit but I get the impression that Remic was being completely serious here. I came close to throwing in the towel here folks.
To top it all off, there’s a plot twist that is surely worthy of the TV Tropes shocking swerve page. Alloria, Queen of Falanor, was a vachine all along and she was the one who planted the third Soul Gem in Saark! This means Remic can say “Hah! She didn’t really get raped in the first book by Graal, she was just pretending so ner to all those people who called me a dirty misogynist”. Yah, well, that might have worked with some more foreshadowing, a plausible reason for why two of the best vachines ever (Vashell and Anukis) didn’t notice a fellow vachine in their midst and last of all if Remic had managed to pull it off without flatly contradicting *all* of Alloria’s POV narration. Did everyone who gave this book a positive review think that this twist was acceptable? There’s a difference between switching your brain off for the lol-worthy MEGAVIOLENCE(tm) and being tolerant of the author slapping you in the face with his wang exclaiming “Hah! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!”.
It’s probably a good thing that I was reading this on a Kindle as that is precisely the kind of shit that results in defenestrated books. The book ends on another cliffhanger as the summoning ritual is completed and Kell, Saark, Nienna and Saark jump down a hole into the heart of the Black Pike mountains. Vampire Warlords is up next and then I’m going to be in need of a double eye transplant. Remember readers, I’m doing this so you don’t have to.
1Incidentally, how would an essentially medieval society be able to diagnose internal tumours without using magic? Note that magic throughout the series is always of the evil/black kind, such as Kell’s blood-bond with Ilanna. There is no indication of good/white magic at all.
2 Characters do not merely run along walkways, they hammer down flexing planks, swords slam up or across, axes sing, arrows flash, Kell growls…
3 Mainly halls as it goes: the Golden Halls, the Halls of Bone, the Chaos Halls, the Hall of Heroes and the Halls of Shit Prose
4 Evidently Remic’s thesaurus is missing the word “fop”
I blame Martin Lewis for this*. After all, it was his blog post that drew my attention to the brilliant review of Kell’s Legend by Jared at Pornokitsch, and furthermore it was he who bemoaned the lack of discernment in the fantasy blogsphere**. So, for all of the above and because
I’m a nutter I love David Gemmell’s brand of low fantasy, I thought I’d give the book a go to see if it really is as bad as Jared said.
Kell’s Legend is dedicated to the late David Gemmell for inspiring Remic to write fantasy, more specifically Remic cites Gemmell’s first novel Legend in the Q&A at the end of the book. This would have been painfully obvious to anyone who has read Gemmell’s debut. For those unfamiliar with Legend, it was about a grizzled axe-wielding veteran forced out of retirement to help fight off an invasion of his homeland by a barbarian horde. Kell’s Legend is about a grizzed axe-wielding veteran forced out of retirement to fight off an invasion of his homeland by a clockwork vampire horde, with added rape and MEGAVIOLENCE(tm).
I could have accepted the plot theft because there’s nothing new under the sun and all that, but Remic proceeds to ‘borrow’ dialogue wholesale from Gemmell as well. Kell refers to his womanising companion Saark as “laddie”, just like Legend‘s Druss, Saark’s own dialogue is reminiscent of Sieben the Saga Master from The Legend of Deathwalker, down to referring to
Druss Kell as “old horse” and Remic even steals Gemmell’s phrase “a man to walk the mountains with”. James Long of Speculative Horizons calls this “a deliberate nod to Gemmell fans” and one that he liked a lot. I call it lazy bullshit.
Underneath the dense layers of homage, there are a few original ideas lurking in the depths. The steampunk twist on vampires (human-clockwork hybrids called “vachines”) is novel and if he’d concentrated more on developing this aspect of his world-building instead of skull-fucking Gemmell’s style into oblivion then perhaps he could have finished with a more substantial product. That is if Remic could write worth a damn. As Martin noted, Gemmell at his best was merely a serviceable writer. Remic’s writing on the other hand makes my eyes bleed. I’m loathe to quote any of the book because it hurts too much but here you go:
More arrows thudded the canker’s flanks, and it reared, pawing the air with deformed arms, hands ending in glinting metal claws, and fangs slid from its jaws as its vampire vachine side emerged and it leapt on a soldier, fangs sinking in, drinking up milky blood and then choking, sitting backwards as swords hacked at its cogs and heavily muscled flesh and it spat out the milk, reached out and grasped an albino by the head, to pull his head clean off trailing spinal column and clinging tendons which pop pop popped as they dangled and swung like ripped cloth.
Please note that the above quote is a single sentence. Angry Robot at this point deserve a massive slap for not getting an editor to fix some of Remic’s more glaring style issues. A good start would be to ditch the overuse of ellipses to add…tension and to stop Remic from coercing hyphens into… splitting up the end of- Sentences. Correcting the constant barrage of typos would also have been nice but that’s a different problem.
Plot-wise, it’s all a confused jumble of MEGAVIOLENT(tm) fight scenes broken up with terrible dialogue and women getting humiliated, raped, killed. If they’re lucky, they merely get kidnapped and given a slow-acting poison. So there’s a nation of clockwork vampires in the far north who need a combination of blood and oil to survive, but they’re running low on the former and send an army of albinos to invade the southern kingdom of Falenor. Alongside the albinos are Harvesters, an allied race who are able to utilise blood-oil magick to subdue the enemy and, er, harvest (imagination failure #1 of many) their blood.
In the process of this grand scheme, they rile Kell who goes on a geriatric rampage to find his grand-daughter Nienna and then to warn Falenor’s king of the impending threat. Along for the ride are Nienna’s university friend Kat and disgraced womanising swordsman Saark. Meanwhile in Falenor’s capital, the king’s wife is captured by the albino army’s leader, General Graal, and raped repeatedly to demoralise the king. If that wasn’t enough misogyny for you, back in Clockwork Vampire Land, a high-born vachine princess is found to be ‘impure’ and is subsequently humiliated, raped repeatedly and a bonus, led around on a leash before she eventually escapes to find her true destiny.
Remic likes his cliffhangers, ending almost every chapter with one of our heroes about to get a sword in the face, but then they inevitably survive through a rubbish plot device. For example, Kell spends most of the book running away from a couple of monstrous cankers (mutated vachines, which incidentally are derivative of Gemmell’s human-animal Joinings) only to later use some magic in his demon-possessed axe that allows him to start slaughtering the things with cheerful abandon. It also turns out that Kell used to hunt vachines which is clearly why he mentioned nothing of the sort for the first half of the book and was confused as to why the invading Army of Iron would want to slaughter the entire population of Falenor. Come on Remic, at least attempt to explain this with something like, oh I don’t know, amnesia suffered as a result of Kell’s alcoholism or repressed memories perhaps. Something however bloody implausible would have been better than Kell suddenly spouting all this knowledge that after acting all stupid (it probably runs in the family judging from Nienna) but then he also completely fails to recognise the trio he put in jail five years previously (whom Remic imaginatively names the Jailers***) so at least he’s consistently dumb. All of that would have enough to be getting on with, but Remic continues to pile on the plot elements which is at odds with Gemmell’s minimalistic approach to world-building and actual concentration on character.
So, in hindsight I should have known better. It turns out that Kell’s Legend really is as bad as Jared said it was, although in my case I can’t honestly say that I’ve read a worse book. This coming from a man who has read virtually all of the Dragonlance books and a fair few of the Forgotten Realms series too). Kell’s Legend should be avoided at all costs. If you’ve read all your Gemmell books to death and are still after a fix, then go and read Ian Graham’s Monument instead****. It’s significantly better and much more in Gemmell’s style, utter bastard protagonist notwithstanding.
And having said all that, I intend to review the rest of the Clockwork Vampires trilogy, because I’m a masochist and someone has to counter the positive reviews of Soul Stealers and Vampire Warlords. Duty calls!.
* Also Angry Robot for reducing each book in their Kindle back catalogue to £1, but mainly Martin.
** He’s absolutely right by the way
*** I don’t think there is a facepalm big enough for that particular naming decision
**** Graham’s website states that he is now writing full-time. Considering Monument was released back in 2002, I’d love to know what’s he been living off since then.