I once again welcome Antonio Díaz who, simultaneously with Leticia Lara from Fantástica Ficción, reviews for Snakewood, by Adrian Selby. Hope you like it!
Review Soundtrack: Antonio suggest reading this review while listening to Troy, by Sinéad O'Connor (YouTube, Spotify).
Snakewood is Adrian Selby's literary debut and one of the grimdark side of fantasy most expected releases. The central plot element is the mercenary group known as Kailen's Twenty, composed by the best of the best in all crafts related to war-making. For several decades, they sold their talents to whomever paid them the most until they decided to put an end after one last job. Fifteen years later, Gant, one of these mercenaries, receives news that someone is killing his old gang one by one. A very dark fantasy story with a distinct western flair and a well threaded synopsis were enough to hook me.
The first thing that caught my attention was that the reading's difficulty was quite steep. Just in chapter one, that tells the ambush on Gant's POV, obvious typos and grammatical errors appear. But don't fret: they're intentional. Several old medieval terms (some obscure enough to make me look them up), abundant references to fictional plants and strange idioms made up for the book's fresh take on combat, tactics and strategy can slow your reading speed a bit. Once you get a bit further into the novel and get to know the terms and characters things get way easier.
Adrian Selby has decided to undertake a very ambitious project. The novel has a classic structure in chapters but each of them can be a letter sent from a POV character; or a report by the mysterious Fieldsman 84; or the transcript from an interview about an old feat performed by Kailen's Twenty, etcetera, etcetera. It is an approach – maybe not the most original – that is still quite attractive to the reader and that Selby manages to pull off nicely. His writing mimics the education, culture and way of talking of each of the POVs and the materials included in the novel. Thus, it seems that we are looking at a binder with every document related to the case included. I wouldn't raise a brow if the book's print version included different paper type, quality and font for each chapter. These frequent POV and timeline changes aids in building tension even though the plot may not advance as much. Unfortunately, in the novel's last quarter flashbacks become unnecessary and they greatly damage the novel's rhythm.
At first, it looks like there are too many characters and POVs and following the plot and who are they talking about can become a bit hard. In order to make it a bit easier for me, I had to compile a small summary. Nevertheless, after that first third the novel focuses and gains speed because the average writing quality is improved with the appearance of a couple of properly-educated POV characters. Every bit of worldbuilding's basic concepts is understood – making the book's own idioms get highlighted for their originality – and you have enough info about most of Kailen's Twenty. Furthermore, the pace gets faster on its own with one of those new characters and pages fly by inadvertedly.
However, on the last quarter of the novel things start to fall apart. A couple of the story's main mysteries get revealed and you lose interest while the characters run around trying to figure out something you have known for a while. The plot's main support beam – the vengeance's reason – didn't completely satisfy me either. The presence of flashback chapters when everything is ready for the big ending broke the novel's pace and pulled me out and I couldn't get completely back in. The ending was also disappointing because Selby didn't make the most of the worldbuilding for a final twist nor didn't he tie up the character's motivation to their actions to make sense. Looks like he couldn't get out from the idea he originally had in his head of how things should be instead of following his character's footsteps to the obvious conclusion.
Undoubtedly, the novel's main point is its worldbuilding. Adrian Selby introduces a place where magic is a legend and 'magists' (because it looks like 'wizards', 'sorcerers' or 'mages' are too mainstream now), if they even existed, have disappeared forever. However alchemists (drudhas in Snakewood) are specialists in synthesizing chemical compounds from animals and plants in order to create all kinds of substances. A lot of them make daily life and industry better, but Selby focuses in the ones used for war. In combat, each warrior that wants to remain alive has to wear his fieldbelt; when he sees danger approach, he'll give his fightbrew a good gulp to get combat-ready and he'll scrub his sword in a paste. If enemy archers throw sporebags, he'll put his mask on. If they throw dust, he'll use drops in his eyes augmenting his eyesight. The fightbrew will float him to a full raise and his muscles will be bigger, his hearing so acute as to listen a whisper two dozen paces apart, his sense of smell will let him pick his enemies' scent and he'll be able to detect their heat. He won't forget to quickly apply bark and poultice if anyone manages to cut him with a sword or arrow, because in only a few seconds he could be dead. And when the battle is finished, he'll search for a quiet place to endure the aftereffects of his abuse on his body and to pay the colour.
Everything surrounding the plant system is absolutely fascinating and incredibly original. In a genre that fights against stagnation is refreshing to see new, well thought ideas applied. Certainly all the vocabulary derived from this exotic worldbuilding makes the reading a bit harder, but it is totally worth it. Clearly, Selby has thought long and hard about this 'magic' system and has made the most of it.
To sum up, the book has left me with conflicting emotions. On one hand, the irregular pace and the order of certain chapters in the book – chapters I would have rearranged or directly deleted – decrease the book's quality. On the other hand, we have this excellent chemical war system with swords, knives and bows that is perfect and exquisitely developed. Maybe Selby's main problem has been an excess of ambition for a debut novel and his lack of experience to give the last touch that would have turned it into a blockbuster. I really hope he doesn't get discouraged and he keeps writing. I'm already looking forward to his next book.