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Saturday, October 8, 2016

Horselords by David Cook, Forgotten Realms 1990

This was a surprisingly good book for genre fiction of the time period. However two publication years into the forgotten realms books and still at the far outskirts of the world, places that haven't even heard of the great city of Baldur's Gate. Still with this, and the last Realms book I reviewed I'm seeing a pattern. The first two years of the Realms gave a snapshot of the interior of the realm. Now we are fleshing out the outskirts. This book reminds me a tad of Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts Empire series. It however is most definitely a vintage example of Orientalism. As I discussed here, I am on the fence about such uses of fantasy. On the one hand, done well it provides a welcome relief to standard European fare fantasy, on the other it imposes it's own set of tropes, stereotypes and racist or otherwise bigoted commentary. On the whole, I think Cook skirts the worst things about Orientalism and concentrates on character development and story. One last general note: as Iron Helm had been about the founding of the Americas, Horselords is about Genghis Khan and the The Great Wall of China. That is a history that I know nothing about. But it isn't hidden or hinted at, it is written very clearly as a parallel. Remember that Ed Greenwood's initial conception of The Realms was as a nexus or hidden world, a reflection of all worlds and a fairy realm to our own. Meaning that the epic history told in the Empires Trilogy is meant to mirror our own world.  Viewed in that light it is kind of neat, and readjusts our expectations for cliches.

Belive it or not, there is no fan art for Horselords
Character: there are basically four characters in the whole book. The lead is a priest character, a swami named Koja. He is a unusual in that unlike many D and D priest characters, Koja is entirely weaponless. That said, it doesn't matter since he is a hostage for the entire course of the novel. It is an unusual story in many respects: Koja is a weak character, indecisive and lacking in confidence. The main arc of the story is his Stockholm syndrome toward the Khan of Khans: Yamun. He abandons his church, and his nation. And he does not love the Khan either, like real life, we are swept forward by events with little in the way of epiphany. To be fair to Koja, he does wrestle with these demons, just not very hard.

The next character is Yamun, the great Khan. His character is fairly clich├ęd, forbidding barbarian King. If anything he's a little more cuddly then many such characters. One thing about Yamun's character, his desire to conquer the Dragonwall is inviolate. He is unable to even consider compromise, and never questions his own judgement. I feel this was a very deliberate choice by Cook, and I don't know, in the end if it reads as one-dimensional or as complex. After all not all characters have to be mealy mouthed and full of internal conflict to be interesting. Often in real life the most interesting people are the most blind. In many respects this novel surpasses the genre of stock swords and sorcery fiction. Much of the story is the interaction between Koja and Yamun, and it takes on the sort of oscar seeking biopic you might expect from Anna and the King. Koja is cut off from all he knows, but did not have too many ties to that world as it was, having lived as a monk. That said, there are many unanswered questions, why was he chosen as a negotiator, and what of his life before he is made captive by the Khan. We are never told, and while the book has many positive elements to it, the lack of background it evinces for its characters is a major failing.

Cliche: Orientalism is probably the worst, the book is replete with customs and inferences drawn from ancient China. As a white person, I don't feel overwhelmed by said stereotypes, but I'm sure I might feel differently had I even a jot of Ghengis Khan's DNA. That said, apparently, like 10% of the world's population has Genghis Khan's DNA so maybe I do have some claim there.  Fun fact, the term Khan, used in many fantasies is a Mongolian word for King. Although the web link is silent on which came first Genghis, or the Khan. Another cliche, The Good Advisor cliche, is highly evident for obvious reasons.  Koja's conflict over how to advise the Khan, particularly in light of the serious conflict of interest is only lightly delved into it.  It's the sort of thing that all of the Forgotten Realms novels tends to fail at: none of the characters have history.  We do learn of Yamun's ascent to power, and his relationship with his mother-in-law and first wife, Bayalun, but of the advisor we learn little beyond his cloistered life as a yogi of this temple.  I hate to cite the Stockholm Syndrome cliche, over played and tired as it is, but any discussion of Horselords has to at least mention the fact that Koja's relationship to Yamun should be a hostile one.  One cliche certainly not in evidence are the typical Dungeons and Dragons cliches.  There is not a single dwarf or elf in the place.

Completeness:  The world of Horselords is the outskirts of the traditional Forgotten Realms.  Even in Iron Helm, there was mention of the standard Realms, characters and outside influence from the realms we've come to know and love.  Not so Horselords, not even the gods are similiar, and the Shou Empire and the Tuigan hordes of Yamun seem to not take place in the same space at all.  Inspite of this, the novel is written well enough that this subrealm seems entirely plausible.  The Tuigan as a people are entirely tribal and believable as wandering marauders with little interest in outside realms, save war.  The Khazari, a tributary nation conquered by the Shou Empire provides some depth to the political landscape.
The Great Wall of China, of which this book is about.

One thing that disappoints about David Cook's Horselords is the ending.  A sort of standard double cross is planned, and SPOILER ALERT is never hatched, but is discovered well before the trap is sprung.  While the double-cross was standard stuff, it was the dramatic conclusion to the novel, and without it, the ending was sort of uninspiring.  I wonder what happened there.  It was all set up... The novel is the first of a trilogy, so perhaps it was hacked to death and given this rather contrived ending to pick up the drama in later novels.  Regardless, the next in the series, Dragonwall is next on my FR list.