The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked this up for free from Gollancz at the 2014 Eastercon. Like Barricade, another freebie from the same publisher that I reviewed here earlier, I found it to be a well-written novel that ended up disappointing me.
The setting is an alternative Wild West colonized by the Rumans, an alternative Roman Empire that gets its strength from Hellfire--captured imps and demons that are made to power steamboats, weapons, and other devices. So yeah, you have fantasy, steampunk, and Weird West all wrapped into one. Variants on the Chinese and Spanish are also mentioned.
The action centers around Shoe and Fisk, two scouts employed by a Ruman senator to clear the way for his steamboat as it carries a very important cargo--a captured Spanish princess. Shoe is half dvergar, a dwarf-like race native to the continent. Shoe narrates the plot but does very little, the story mostly being about Fisk, a typical Western hero, a Lone Ranger to Shoe's Tonto.
And this is the first major stumbling block to my enjoyment of the book. The only other dvergar in the book is also in a servile role. The other native race are the vaettir, elf-like savages that scalp, kill babies, carry off women, and burn settlements. Instead of developing some interesting cultures based on, say, the Navajo or Iroquois, Jacobs cops out and reverts to the simplistic Good, Servile Indian vs. Savage, Hostile Indian trope.
This is the 21st century. Do better.
The senatorial family that Shoe and Fisk are guarding are similarly cartoonish. They are so backbiting and clueless as to be unbelievable, and their stupidity extends to putting their captive, upon whom the future of the Ruman Empire rests, into unnecessary danger. This furthers the plot but could have been handled in a more convincing manner. Add a few clichés (black fire, Infernal Combustion Engines) and I was left struggling to finish it.
And that's a real shame. Jacobs is an excellent writer, his prose always flowing well and presenting some beautiful descriptions. His creativity and obvious talent should have resulted in a better novel. I will probably try out one of Jacobs' other works, but I will not be reading the sequel to The Incorruptibles.
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