This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
I’m launching into the semi-finals of the SPSFC with gusto, and I started with A Touch of Death, Book 1 of the Outlands Pentalogy, by Rebecca Crunden.
Crunden made it to the semi-finals but you know what didn’t? The Oxford comma. Hee hee, I’m sorry but I couldn’t resist. Anyway moving on.
A Touch of Death is the first book in the Outlands Pentalogy. Which is great to see. Love a pentalogy. The story introduces us to the Kingdom, a dystopian post-apocalyptic dictatorship where mind-boggling luxury and technology conceal a multitude of scars. Literally and socioculturally. Freedom and history are explicitly banned by royal decree, and the waning human population (those who survived to crawl out from underground and begin to reclaim the surface world after “the Devastation”) is shored up by grotesque authoritarianism and breeding incentives that more than border on atrocity.
Still, you’ve got to laugh, am I right? Tag yourself, I’m Muntenia.
We’re treated to a harrowing but very nicely-constructed hook at the start, an insight into the fate of dissidents and the existence of decent and empathetic people amidst the broken sheep of the Kingdom’s population, all wrapped up in a tight two-and-a-half-character prologue that we circle back to very satisfyingly by the end of the book. Prison life, the brutality of it and the realities of one law for the rich and another for the poor, the overall political and geographic setup, is done well and served to draw me into the story.
This was good because I have to say, I was unconvinced by our main protagonists Nate and Catherine. However! The prologue served its purpose and by the time that magic started to wear off, our heroes’ plight had taken up the slack and I was back on board. Nate and Catherine flail off into the main body of the story, sniping at one another all the while and bouncing from one fuck-up to the next like a pair of pinballs where all the bumpers and paddles are fuck-ups, and it’s great.
My immediate theory, that Nate was definitely the king’s bastard son and that he and Catherine were taking part in a novel-length Only One Bed trope, didn’t quite pan out at least in this book, but I’m ultimately going to have to stand by it. Their “infection” seemed mega contrived and I had a really hard time relating or getting behind it, or any of their actions or motivations. Fortunately, Crunden avoided the bear traps and turned the setup into an … I won’t say satisfying ending, but an ending that made sense and encouraged me to sleep on it. Yes, I went to sleep mad, but I’m glad I slept.
Look, I’m making this seem really bad. It absolutely wasn’t bad, it was good. If I’m mad, it’s because a) I personally prefer a setting-and-action based story to a character-and-situation based one (at least within this story-type), and b) the characters and situation here were at once infuriating, and so well written. I’m just going to say this and let the chips fall where they may, but Crunden is better than Robin Hobb at this. And judging by the reviews I read of the next four books in the pentalogy (as I tried to figure out whether I wanted to read on), it seems like she improves still further and does something truly great here. And I could not be more happy about that.
It’s just that, for me, and this is my review … I will need to know way more details about what happens in the next books before I read them. Like, way more. Because a story that has a female protagonist forced into a gross arranged marriage to save the lives of her friends? That story needs to end on a fucking killing spree, or I’m out. And this book … didn’t end on a killing spree. Simple as.
What else? Oh yeah, Thom isn’t dead and I was annoyed that any of the characters thought he was. Part of my problem was that I didn’t buy Catherine’s naïveté. I get that her belief in the official propaganda that Thom was dead, her rash remarks about why nobody’s managed to kill the king if he’s so evil (how hard can it be?), and her stubborn refusal to admit that a relationship where you’re constantly challenged and enraged and stressed is better than one where you’re in love and at peace (Jesus fucking Christ are you serious), are probably meant to be a sign of her childlike blindness … but I’ve got to say the only one of her traits I really saw as naïve was that first one. She was simply too strongly written, too bright and fierce and wonderful, for me to believe even for a second that there was a trace of sheep in her. Her belief in the broadcast read, to me, like the only way to get her moving on the rest of the quest – because if she hadn’t believed it, as in my opinion her character demands, then she would have stayed in Anais and tried to rescue him. The author had to get her out of there, and this was the solution. I’m sorry but that’s how I read it – and I am fine with that. Some readers might grumble about narrative convenience taking them out of a story – not me. It’s a story. And a good one.
But sure, let’s say that she was supposed to have some simplistic notions and she learned and grew as the story progressed. Good. Excellent. It doesn’t explain why Nate, certain of Thom’s survival, also didn’t seem to want to save him, but let’s chalk that up to a combination of not knowing where to start, feeling it was absolutely futile (and he would know, unlike Catherine), and wanting to bang Catherine. And no, I will not say that in a more dignified way. I just plain did not particularly care for these protagonists. And that’s all to the good, really it is. That’s some complex shit right there.
I loved the worldbuilding and the backstory. I want to know the full and real story of the apparent divergence of humanity that led to the emerged-from-underground “humans” and the above-ground-all-along “mutants”. Because we’re not being told everything, not by a long shot. Catherine’s story of her first kiss was unbearably cute and I adored it, an absolute highlight. The technology and culture on display was fascinating. Really well done. I was unable to shake the Victorian feel of it, and yet there was stunning technology at every turn to show us what sort of world we were really visiting. And I liked it.
Just … needed a killing spree. Sorry.
Beyond some fairly distasteful allusions to rape, forced breeding with a lesbian character, and a lot of spreading warmth that made me squint at my kindle every time Catherine and Nate touched, this was a relatively sexless affair. Zero children out of a possible certificate of nobility and a free house.
Some nasty flaying of backs in the prison flogging scene, a bit of up-close and personal cutting and bleeding, and a whole lot of social violence and executions and such. Add to that a downright prison-camp-experiment sequence of doctor’s notes about wartime testing and mutilation, and the burns that Nate and Catherine experienced on the regular as a symptom of their malady, and you end up with quite the grotesque offering. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for A Touch of Death. Man, if only there’d been some sort of … spree at the end, it might have made it to a perfect five. Oh well.
There’s a lot more going on here, with the worldbuilding and the politics, than meets the eye. Not for nothing is freedom and history outlawed in the Kingdom. We get tantalising little glimpses of larger mysteries, but all in all I wouldn’t call this a WTF-heavy outing. Let’s give it a Bart Simpson holding out his hand with thumb and pinkie extended, going “nyaaaaaaa…” out of a possible actual touch of death.
My Final Verdict
It really feels like I came down hard on this book when that absolutely wasn’t my intention. It made me feel things that I generally don’t want when I read a book, but a lot of people are going to love it for exactly that reason. The very fact that I’m even thinking about reading the next four books in the pentalogy means it hit what is, for me subjectively and specifically, a really small target from a considerable distance. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Thanks for a good read!
 Okay, so I guess we’re going to talk about Hobb.
Robin Hobb is an outstanding author. You don’t need my take on this: she is immensely popular and successful and you will find a half-dozen people willing to sing her praises right here on this blog (I mean they’re unlikely to speak up, but they are here; I’ve seen them subscribe). Read her books and make up your own mind.
I, however, read the Farseer trilogy at a really low point in my life when I was already cataclysmically unhappy, and the relentless mistreatment of the main character and the seeming shitting-on-him-for-the-sake-of-shitting-on-him of it was not only life-draining, it felt artless and tacky. I will never like those books, I will never read any more of Hobb’s work no matter how many people whose opinions I trust assure me it gets better (and many have tried), and Hobb’s very name is usually enough to take me instantly back to that dark place where a shitty thing a person wrote in three shitty books made me want to kill myself. So no. Fuck those books and fuck any book that makes me feel that way ever again. Fuck it utterly and methodically and categorically.
This is, it goes without saying, my own personal opinion and should be taken as the opinion of one reader under very specific and difficult circumstances and with lingering and ongoing trauma, and not as a recommendation of any sort. I am not a psychiatrist and so cannot even warn people with depression to avoid these books. They may find them uplifting. Many, many people do. All I can really say is that if you are me, don’t go there. And you’re not me. I am. And I’m already exercising my own damage control. This is just to explain my own mental landscape a little, so you know where I’m coming from when I compare an author to Hobb. It may or may not mean that I hate them, but it definitely means that they’re really, really good. Probably. If they can grow the fuck out of the “burning dolls with a magnifying glass while masturbating” phase of authorial teenagerhood. And now I’ve used up all of my diplomatic words and am going to end this sidebar before I start saying what I really think.