13:3: Antoine Rouaud’s The Path of Anger, reviewed by Liz Bourke

13:3: Antoine Rouaud’s The Path of Anger, reviewed by Liz Bourke

The Path of Anger, Antoine Rouaud. ISBN 9780575130814, Gollancz, Nov 2013. Translated from the French by Tom Clegg. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.

Gollancz is one of the few publishers to have developed a regular sideline in publishing foreign fantasy in English. In addition to English translations of internationally best-selling Polish fantasy superstar Andrzej Sapkowski, their list includes the Cardinal’s Blades trilogy from French author Pierre Pevel. Now Pevel has been joined by his fellow countryman Antoine Rouaud, an epic fantasy writer whose debut, The Path of Anger, was no sooner translated than it was nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award.

The Path of Anger is an odd but strangely compelling epic fantasy. It opens with a young historian, Viola, tracking down a broken old drunk called Dun in a tavern to ask him about a legendary sword: Eraëd, the sword of emperors, taken from the body of the dead emperor and hidden away.

Dun (pronounced, as the text makes sure to tell us, Deune) is actually Dun-Cadal of Daermon, once a famous knight and general of the Empire. But the Empire broke apart in general rebellion and revolution, and a Republic rose to take its place. The novel is divided into two halves. In Part One, the narrative alternates between the frame story in the present – Viola convincing Dun-Cadal to tell her about his history – and the meatier part of the story in the past, in which we see the course of the revolution from Dun-Cadal’s perspective, as he acquires a protégé (the boy Frog), fights, and utterly fails to realise that the forces determined to break the Empire aren’t just in the countryside but in the heart of the imperial court. In Part Two, the frame story widens to become a fully-fledged narrative strand full of intrigue and action in its own right, while the past narrative thread switches perspective. Now it’s told from Frog’s point of view, and we learn that what Dun-Cadal saw and what Frog saw are in important ways at odds – not least because Frog was never quite who Dun-Cadal thought he was.

The climax of the novel hinges on the sword Dun-Cadal took from the emperor’s body, the reconciliation of Dun-Cadal’s and Frog’s perspectives, and the revelation that the Republic itself is in danger from the same forces that helped manipulate the downfall of the empire.

Reviewing a translation is a peculiar exercise. The rhythms of the prose remain French, and the translator – Tom Clegg, who did an excellent job with Pierre Pevel’s trilogy – has faithfully reproduced some stylistic oddities and what appear to be puns that don’t quite work in English. Whether or not these would read more smoothly – and be more funny – in the original French I can’t say, not being fluent enough in that language for real literary appreciation. But here they are distracting – particularly Rouaud’s trick of inter-cutting of lines of italicised dialogue from the past narrative into the present one, or vice versa.

Thematically, it’s a novel concerned with the relationship between perception and truth, with a strong dash of father-son mirroring thrown in. But the theme isn’t presented strongly, in a unified way, throughout, and it is this lack of robust thematic coherence combined with a structural sloppiness – past and present narrative threads don’t support and reinforce their tensions to the fullest possible extent, and indeed sometimes act at cross-purposes to each other – that makes The Path of Anger more of an ambitious failure than a narrative success.

That, and the way in which the world of the novel is only barely sketched: there’s an Empire, succeeded by a Republic in a fashion that clearly evokes the French Revolution (and the Saltmarsh with its peasant rebellion brings to mind the marshes of the Vendée and the brutal suppression of the revolt there during the years of the Revolution), although the technology is decidedly medieval. But the lands of the Empire exist in a void for all the attention The Path of Anger pays to the world outside its borders – and indeed, we never get a sense for any internal differentiation with the lands of the Empire, nor any real cultural differences more subtle than that between nobility and peasantry. Compared to the worlds created by Katherine Addison or Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie or N.K. Jemisin – to say nothing of Elizabeth Bear or Kate Elliott – The Path of Anger takes place in a culturally barren world indeed.

A world with only three named women, all of whom are problematic in relation to the main characters. Viola is least problematic of these: although she exists to be exposited at, at least she seems to have a personality. Mildrel, the aging courtesan whose role in relation to Dun-Cadal combines the figures of mother and lover, doesn’t even have that much. She is his caretaker, whose only point of complaint about him – even when he’s filthy, broke-down drunk and good for nothing, and she’s still letting him sleep in her bed – seems to be that he never was able to sire a child with her. (She also seems to be supporting him on her earnings, because he certainly doesn’t seem to be earning anything on his own in the present-time strand of the narrative.) The third woman, Esyld, exists as an unobtainable love object – and I use the word object advisedly – for Frog. He loves his idea of her, and while she does get to make her own choices, he fails to acknowledge them as legitimate, because they don’t fit his idea of how things should be. He’s barely stopped from murdering her husband at least twice in the final hundred pages.

There are many, many, many named male characters in this novel. Surely one or two or three of the countless nobles and knights and the odd inventor or monk could’ve been a woman, or had women who were important to them visibly in their lives? This rendering-invisible of women as a class is not uncommon in epic fantasy, and it’s really rather tiring.

This might make it sound as though I thoroughly disliked The Path of Anger. Not so, although I like it less in retrospect than while I was reading. It’s definitely a flawed debut, but it has a certain compelling readability. If I have time when the sequel comes out, I may well pick it up.

Just to see what happens next.

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