Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Thin Executioner

           Okay, so the rundown is as follows: The Thin Executioner by Darren Shan is a brilliant, violent coming-of-age novel about a young man's attempt to gain power through a human sacrifice ritual so he can become an executioner. It is very well-written and even unnerving in places, and while just falling short of a place on the bookshelf, is at least worth the time it would take to read it.

            The good is a plot that moves very quickly and contains some unexpected twists, some vivid and disturbing passages that serve as a sort of commentary on culture, and a well-kindled glimmer of hope stuck between all the brutal passages about nearly dying from mosquitoes and cannibals. 

            The bad is a number of irritating recurring characters and that the protagonist is pretty much a loudmouthed ass for the first third of the book, before changing into a decent human being somewhere along his journey.

              But in the end, this is a highly-readable volume, and one well worth your time. Go. Find it. 

More, as always, below.

"No matter how bad things get, I'll still be alive...I don't want to turn my back on it until I have to."
- Jebel Rum           

          I'm not sure quite what I expected when I picked up The Thin Executioner. I had some vague notion of what it was about, of course, with the book jacket copy mentioning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the authors' notes talking about The Arabian Nights (a personal favorite of mine since I was very little), but it was very vague. I think this is how it was able to sneak up and surprise me so much, I didn't have much of a frame of reference going in. From the most I could figure, I was on my way through some kind of bleak imaginary-world historical tale about a young man taking a long journey on foot to a volcano. At times, it read like a quest fantasy, and at times like some kind of insane travelogue through a faux-middle eastern world. But it isn't quite that. It's so much more than that. What is it? Well...

                        The Thin Executioner is the story of Jebel Rum, the runt of the Rum family. Jebel's father, Rashed Rum, is the executioner of the city of Wadi, a position that offers him much prestige and honor among all castes. Wadi is a city that values strength over anything else, and so when it comes time for Rashed to step down as executioner, he makes a speech that he hopes one of his two sons will follow in his footsteps by winning Wadi's annual contest of strength. 

Problem being, Jebel is his third son.

                        In a desperate bid to restore his honor, Jebel petitions the city to quest for the favor of the violent Sabbah Eid, a fire god rumored to bestow great strength and invincibility on any who can make it to his mountain and perform the proper sacrifice of a traveling companion. With the help of a trader, Jebel secures the services of Tel Hesani, a slave who needs to free his mother and daughters. The two set out on foot towards the mountain and their appointment with the god of violence on what they hope will be a perilous but expedient journey.

And then things get weird

                     It turns out the road is a bit more dangerous than either Jebel or Hesani could imagine, and their travels put them on a dangerous collision course with horrifying monsters, trapped elder gods, a pair of unscrupulous and sociopathic con men, torture and suicide cults, an insane tribe of bat-worshippers, cannibals, and finally the mountain of Sabbah Eid and what lies inside. Before the end of their journey, they will be mutilated, enslaved, and almost fed to both angry crocodiles and angrier mosquitoes. And should they reach the end, it may not even be worth the journey. They will need every resource, every lucky break, every moment they can spare to survive.

                     The best thing about this book has to be the mood. Darren Shan has always been one to play with the emotions and atmosphere, and here is no exception. Make no mistake, and I feel like telling my readers this is redundant because the book is called The Thin Executioner and involves questing for the right to make a human sacrifice, this is a dark, brutal book. But it isn't ever so brutal there isn't a shred of hope. What Shan does with the tone is to make it seem not like all is lost, but like there's still a small chance things will pull out. And sometimes, they do. Sometimes they lead into an even worse situation, but there's still that small silver hook of hope leading the reader ever onward. It's a more delicate version of the approach Joe Hill used in NOS4A2, but more delicate is probably warranted given that this is technically a YA book, and I feel like the younger generation probably has enough relentless existential brutality in their lives. They don't need that in their fiction, too. Well, from my perspective, anyway.

                   Another good thing about The Thin Executioner is that it's very vivid. Shan spent a lot of time on his world design, and it shows. The two sequences that stand out the most would be the Siq, a large network of caverns where an egalitarian tribal society lives and hunts; and the pilgrimage of the um Biyara, a brutal sequence involving the heroes' travels after they are coerced into a torture/suicide cult and forced to travel with them as their prisoners. Both sequences pack a lot of detail, and actually seem like the sequences Shan spent the most time on. But even small sequences...the questing ceremony, the forest full of bats, the realm of the feels like Shan left nothing to chance, and fully-realized the world. And coming from the same man who gave us The City Trilogy, where a lot of the details of the setting were kind of abstract and left to be filled in more or less by the reader, this means a lot. 

                   And finally, I love the plot. I can't spoil too much about the way the book is plotted, but I was genuinely surprised by several moments in the closing chapters, and there's a turning point in the book that occurs in a completely natural fashion but also comes as something of a shock. But most importantly, there's an ending that fits the plotline. And coming from City of Dark Magic to this was a breath of fresh air, because after that book, I would have been glad if it just tied everything up in a neat ending and didn't bother with the rest. But what Shan does is take a conclusion that by all rights does not fit the premise, and makes it work. And that, even for an accomplished writer, is a feat people don't often pull off very well. 

                    But this does not come without caveats. In the first few sections of the book, the main characters all start off as really irritating. Jebel is little more than an ill-tempered brat, Hesani is grudging and ridicules him at every turn, and the people of Wadi are, well...exactly what you'd expect for a city where the punishment for all crimes is execution. And it makes the book difficult to read when all that comes out of the main character's mouth is pure, unfiltered arrogance and debasement. But, and this is the part that makes it worth getting through the terrible passages of whiny Jebel and his entitlement complex, he gets better. Unfortunately, the amount of irritating characters does get on one's nerves, and the fact that the evil characters in the book tend to stick around for multiple chapters and get on one's nerves more and more and more doesn't help. At all. 

                 But in the end, this is a book worth buying. It's dark, and nasty, and in places incredibly brutal, but at the same time, there's a beauty and a lot of heart to it. If you have the time and the place in your reading list, I highly recommend you pick this one up and read it. Even if you don't, it's a good enough read to be worth the time and effort put into it, and the movement of the plot will make it a shorter amount of time, if no less well spent. 

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- Koko by Peter Straub
- Necrophenia by Robert Rankin


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