In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way upstream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it – from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.
In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.
For Fisk and Shoe – two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other – their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
This is the first of Jacobs’ novels I have read, and I come away with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is a fantastic reception element. On the other hand… well. We’ll get to the other hand of The Incorruptibles shortly.
The setting is the strongest part of this novel by far. A thinly veiled alternate Earth with an alternate history, demon-based industrial-scale everyday magic, and fantasy races (the vaettir, elves-ish, and dvergar, dwarves), The Incorruptibles‘ cast is entirely Rumans; and if you think that might be a thinly veiled reference to Romans, you’re right. Tripartite names, distinctly Roman attitudes and customs (both the triclinium and the toga are mentioned), an Emperor-and-Senate combination… it’s fascinating to see what Jacobs does with the familiar to both situate the reader in and alienate the reader from the world.
On the other hand, the worldbuilding also contains one of the biggest problems of the novel. The vaettir are savages, inhuman, murderous, and eaters of human flesh. They’re also scalpers, resisting the humans encroaching on their territory, and clearly marked as a villainous and evil race. The Incorruptibles forgets that, in the 21st century, the Westerns-style attitude to the colonised has become unacceptable; and that making your evil race somewhat obviously a parallel to stereotypical depictions of Native American culture is rather seriously problematic. That the women are given a decent role in the novel is, at first glance, a good thing; yet once again Jacobs displays attitudes that are rather less than appropriate. His point of view narrator consistently deploys the male gaze (describing one character’s bodice as “displaying her feminine features to great effect” ), and while Livia is a character who is competent, able to handle a number of roles, and able to use a shotgun, she still seems to turn to her sex as the weapon of first choice, and to naivete as a default state; without mentioning that the rest of the women are impressively awfully portrayed.
The Incorruptibles is also interminable. A novel with a plot so formulaic, without an untelegraphed twist in sight, needs to have either good characters or a good writing style to replace that. Jacobs’ prose. however, is slow, plodding, and dull; it feels like the benefits of first person (immediacy, for instance) have replaced any need for actual skill, to the point where Jacobs forgets that in a retrospective, future events should colour the past, that emotions need to be demonstrated, not just told, and that a poor approach to prose will only lose the reader’s attention. Instead, we’re treated to prose that is at best workmanlike detailing a plot that is dull, acted out by characters who are… well.
The cast of The Incorruptibles doesn’t make up for its failings. Livia has been discussed above; Fisk is, despite having backstory and clear hints of attempts to make him more, just another Western stock figure, the gunman with a heart of gold; Shoe, our narrator, is along for the ride, never showing any evidence for why Fisk puts up with him, or his abilities, just telling us about them; the Cornelii have personalities flatter than the featureless plain the book is largely set in, and even more one-dimensional than the approach to the vaettir; and the rest of the cast are equally irredeemably dull.
The blurb and quotes on The Incorruptibles try to situate it as part of the grimdark movement. To be related to that movement, one must have certain characteristics; a so-called crapsack world? Yes. A “realistic” approach to the world? Well, not really; the simplistic approach to the vaettir alone prevents that, but so do the approaches to Fisk’s attempt-at-character-development and Livia’s feelings. A willingness to show the grime and blood of a violent life? Well, passages lasting multiple pages about torturing a woman, dwelt on in almost pornographic detail, aside, no. And those passages are indeed pornographic; even as Shoe is supposedly disgusted, he describes them in a manner closer to lust than hatred.
The Incorruptibles is grimdark in the same way Terry Brooks is epic fantasy: derivative, dull, poorly written, and aping much better books. John Hornor Jacobs might not be a racist, nor a misogynist, but from this book, one wouldn’t know it.
DoI: This review was based on an ARC solicited from the publisher, Gollancz. The Incorruptibles will be released on August 14th.