Wednesday 27 January 2016

Spark & Carousel by Joanne Hall

Spark and Carousel is the story of two youngsters. Spark is a former apprentice of a powerful sorcerer, on the run. Carousel is a former street rat, making her living as street acrobat, working for one of the gangs of the city.

It's also the story of the two sorcerers trying to find Spark, the city's ruling family and their youngest daughter, with substantial  story arcs involving merchants, landlords, gangmasters and other inhabitants of this world.

From the book cover, with its dusty colour palette and a font that just screams Old West, you might expect to read a novel about the frontier, about fantasy cowboys and Injuns. This expectation would be misplaced. The story does feature some travelling, but most of it takes place in a big city, full of taverns and inns, street rats and markets. It's a fantasy world, but with its river barges, noble families / petty aristocracies,  and a sense of relative stability, it feels distinctly more European, more akin to pre-industrial Southern Europe than the Wild West.

There are some things that make Spark and Carousel stand out from other fantasy novels. We meet characters of every class, from the lowest street rats to the highest aristocrats, and it is the interactions and intersections between the different characters's lives that drive much of the plot. Each character has reasons for the things they do. There is evil, but it is not the evil of a moustache-twirling villain. Instead, the evil is a bi-product of characters' actions and desires. Some is unleashed by accident, other evil deeds start out as self-defence, against oppressive and abusive situations. On the other hand, some of the 'good guys' are distinctly flawed. Noble, a black gang  master, inspires and demands great loyalty and strives hard to earn and repay this loyalty, but he is also a pimp and a gangster, perfectly ruthless in the pursuit and punishment of the disobedient. Finally, there is realism that rarely appears in fantasy novels: we see Alzheimer's ravaging one character. We see prostitution handled convincingly. Spark and Carousel is surprisingly complex for a fantasy novel, and, despite its small independent press publication, not at all run-of-the-mill. .

In other aspects, Spark and Carousel is following current trends. It is quite grimdark: there's violence, rape, incestuousness, toxic family relationships, etc. The aristocracy could have come straight from a George R R Martin novel, while the lower classes could be meandering into a Brandon Sanderson one without raising an eyebrow. There's sex that's enjoyable for women in the book, as well as persecution-free bisexuality and homosexuality. Basically, it's a novel that would probably not have been written this way twenty or thirty years ago.

The story starts well and keeps up a solidly entertaining pace throughout. Despite having many characters, they are handled well and as a reader, it's easy to keep track of who is who. The story doesn't quite stomp on the plot accelerator like others do, but neither does it have any chapters that drag. As every character is relatable, there are no chapters that you put off reading. (Song of Ice and Fire and the initial First Law trilogy have a mix of viewpoint characters, some of whom I just didn't want to read about. Spark and Carousel does not have that problem - but neither does it have a Tyrion or a Glokta whose chapters I'd devour, hungering for more...)

In terms of the writing, I would put it on a par with the novels of Joe Abercrombie. There's less of a sense of humour in Spark and Carousel, and the characters, while memorable and charismatic, are not quite as larger-than-life as Abercrombie's, but they feel more real and believable as a result. If I had to sum it up in one glib sentence, I'd describe it as "Juliet McKenna meets Joe Abercrombie".

A solidly entertaining, good book for those who enjoy reading fantasy and don't mind grimdark elements.

Rating: 3.5/5

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