I always thought doing reviews would be in line with my weblog’s intentionally vague theme of “analysing anything”. I have never got around to writing one before, though. There are many books that I should write about if I start, but I thought I should start with some that I don’t need to reread first. Hence, my first choice: High Rage by James K. Burk.
As the blurb on the publisher’s page states of the plot:
Scarface, on his way back to a clan stronghold after assassinating a legate, meets and falls in love with a woman even more ruthless than he. To win her, he must reunite an empire and create a kingdom. His only allies are his wits, his sword, and the power in his scars — black marks like the taloned finger prints of a demon.
To achieve his goals, he must deal with old enemies, gods of dubious worth, and his own family — who may be the most dangerous of all.
It’s a good enough summary, only misleading to such a small extent that revealing that would be a spoiler. The focus of the story is a decidedly unromantic love story — the story of what happens when someone perhaps too ruthless to love is romantically pursued by someone perhaps ruthless yet earnest enough to win her over. The book is full of psychology, politics and manipulation, and takes place in an imaginary but fairly realistic world, made clear fantasy by the inclusion of some literal magic.
As the summary above reveals, the plot gets started with the protagonist, Scarface, falling in sudden love with the capable and entirely self-centred Mendarian. Scarface understands just what she is like, someone who cannot be trusted at all, but instead of repelling him as it should, this strikes a chord with him that leads to a rather fatal attraction. Mendarian is already trying to carve a place and a kingdom for herself in the ruthless and volatile game being played between the countries in the area, and to gain her interest, Scarface enters the same game. It’s clearly a time in the book’s world when capable individuals can alter the course of politics dramatically, and this is exactly what happens. Scarface treats the politics as only a tool for his very personal agenda, and the main conflicts in the story lie in the relationships between individuals, not nations. It is more easy to acquire kingship than to start a true relationship with Mendarian. However, such politics are a dangerous tool, and their consequences eventually strike back at the main characters on a personal level as well. There is real tension and unknowability as to the question of just how Scarface is going to come through the ruhtlessly self-centred but at the same time self-destructive game he gets into. The ending is far from being predictable in advance.
Scarface is an interesting and complicated anti-hero protagonist. He has some integrity, empathy and even virtue, but he is also ruthless and, at specific times, very cruel. He genuinely cares about some people, manipulates others without much regard to what happens to them, and has no sympathy at all to those he considers enemies. He also has enough insight to be conflicted about all of this, though not initially or all the time. Many of his actions should not be excused, but he nevertheless strikes me as likeable as a character, and if he were a real person, his good sides would warrant appreciation, though he would still be someone to be very careful of. From what I have learnt of the psychology of evil, his mixture of good and evil is actually realistic — or perhaps beyond realistic in the right direction, a caricature showing how evil things are not only done by people who are thoroughly corrupt, as many of his opponents seem in this story. Of course, there is still a danger that a reader will look at things from Scarface’s point of view and simply approve of his actions. At least the character himself becomes openly conflicted about them.
Other characters are variously drawn, many only showing brief glimpses of depth due to their smaller role in the story, or appearing more as caricatures. As said, the most villainous characters, mostly members of the Union that’s a major force in politics in the area, appear to be simply evil antagonists, drawn with some skill but with little depth or detail that doesn’t just involve them being self-serving villains. It would have been interesting if they could have been more, but it’s not really necessary for the story. The better introduced members of Scarface’s clan are more interesting and given some detail, but they do sometimes feel more like concepts for interesting personalities than fully developed characters. Hadrian, in particular, is almost inhuman, like a personification of his own goals; not only the perfect fighter and assassin, but, up to a point, psychologically untouchable. These are no great flaws, though, and there is certainly some depth in these characters as well. Not everyone in a story can always be explored in full depth.
The world-building in the story is pretty good, with real thought given to the different cultures and political situations over and above the individual characters. Magic is an interesting aspect of this; the world has its own little rules (there’s no huge metaphysical theory or anything) for how magic works, the main thing being the cost to the user — something that Scarface can largely get around in an interesting way involving his distinctive scars. A major point is the possibility of magically taking the form of an animal not by shapeshifting but by switching minds with the animal, and this, like most other things, is quite well thought out.
One part of the world does deserve a little criticism for being less well thought out. The author’s approach to names seems to be almost random. Some sound like names, real or fantasy, while others are just based on common nouns. (That, if you were wondering, is where the name of the novel comes from; it’s the name of one place of importance in the story.) Confusingly, at least one name based on a common noun (“Poker”) is also explained as having a different meaning in another language, leaving one to wonder whether it’s been “translated” into English to convey the effect of sounding like a common noun in the language some of the characters are speaking. Also confusingly, “Scarface” is obviously a pseudonym based on the character’s appearance, which leaves open the possibility that some of the other names could be meaningful in the same sense as well, though I would guess they are not.
I’m afraid the fact that the novel is published by a small publisher might show in its quality, though just a little. There are occasional editing errors, on the level of typos, and if I’m any judge, there’s a systematic error in how commas are used in one syntactical context. Still, the errors are only occasional and not serious. The new cover by Mitchell Bentley is also interesting and, in terms of covers for novels, unusually fitting, showing that the artist has communicated with the author, which I’m pretty sure is the case. It’s actually a credible depiction of something in the contents. The fact that it’s been created digitally, with Poser or something similar, makes it look a little like something from a computer game. This might be turn-off, but that reaction, which I’ve had myself earlier, is only prejudice — why should a well-made cover that looks like it was created using a computer and 3-D graphics be any worse for it than a well-made hand-drawn cover for looking hand-drawn?
Returning to the story itself, I am not generally fond of stories of foolish love that is or should be doomed because it’s an obsession towards someone it makes no sense to want a relationship with. In such a case, love is no better than any other harmful drug. This story handles that well, however. For a start, Scarface is ruthless enough to know what he’s getting into, to some extent. He’s only half drifting helplessly, while the other half of it is that he’s acting very purposefully and resourcefully. More importantly, the story examines the consequences of such an infatuation properly. There’s no sugarcoating how it would go, nor romanticisation of how noble the ensuing strife and misery is. It is more a realistic story of what might happen. Love has power in the story, but so do many other things, and as for power so for value.
Overall, I’d say this is a good novel, well thought out and well written. It’s also just the right length, without any extra padding, which is a welcome change.
Arbitrary numerical rating: 4/5
James K. Burk: High Rage. Wolfsinger Publications, 2013. (There was also a 2003 version by another publisher whose name is given differently in different sources.)
PS. There’s also a sequel coming out, called Taking Hope. I have already read it, or at least a version, and found it to be about as good as High Rage.