Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review - Thraxas

by Martin Scott
2000 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

I've got to say this right at the top: "Wow! What a hideous cover!" I especially like how the front half and back half of the woman's torso in the foreground don't connect together behind her left arm.

I can't hold cover art against Martin Scott. There are, however, these quotes on the cover:

"Blindingly funny!" - The Guardian
"Funny and engaging. I laughed aloud." - Starburst
"Wonderful plotting, and the jokes come thick and fast.... This is funny. Really funny." - Black Tears

Apparently Thraxas is supposed to be a comedy. If it wasn't for those blurbs (and the plot description which describes it as "hilarious") I would have completely missed this fact. What's actually there in the novel just isn't very good.

Thraxas is the cheapest detective in a generic fantasy city. With the assistance of a part-elf, part-orc, part-human, part-time barmaid tough woman he investigates the theft of an incredibly valuable magic-proof cloth and attempts to recover embarrassing materials. Along the way he fights an assortment of evil wizards, assassins, and orcs.

I feel a need to first defend myself as someone who is not a completely humorless, "literature must be serious!" drone. I can point to two authors who I don't like and yet I can recognize as publishing comedic fantasy novels: Robert Asprin and Piers Anthony. I have a complete set of the works of Terry Pratchett and even have a few of them signed. I know that humor is subjective but I'd like to think that I'm at least capable of recognize a joke even if I don't find it funny.

And there's the problem with Thraxas: I couldn't even recognize it as an attempt at humor. The pulp detective influences were obvious but as far as I could tell they were played straight. I've read enough blending of noir and fantasy that it was not inherently humorous. Scott stretches for an occasional poking of some very basic fantasy cliches like the chainmail bikini but does it in the exact same ways that the cliche has been subverted for decades. Making things worse is that the entire setting, plot, and characters are common cliches. The setting might have been pulled straight from AD&D; that can work if it's done for laughs and yet in Thraxas it isn't.

There was one sequence in Thraxas where it started to approach funny for me as several factions pursuing the big treasure pile up in a room like the sailors in Groucho's stateroom. Fortunately Scott difuses this near humor by explicitly telling the reader that this section is funny and the novel returns to it's completely unfunny state.

Okay, enough harping on the "comedy"; perhaps Thraxas is simply the victim of bad marketing. So let's take it as a blend of pulp detectives and pulp fantasy. It does that poorly as well. The fantasy elements are what I hate most in fantasy novels: a world that runs on authorial fiat. Don't even think about any of the setting elements because none of them hold together if examined (again, not a problem if it's funny but...). The detective story is less of a mystery and more of a set of strung together events. Scott never managed to raise my interest in the mystery story.

Scott doesn't even manage as a compelling wordsmith. If there's one aspect to pulp detectives that is memorable and effective it's the unique voice of the characters. Scott makes an occasional half-hearted stab at it and never manages to capture the hard-boiled style that he's looking for.

The best thing I can say about Thraxas is that it is completely unoffensive as a novel. It's a light, bland, forgettable nothing. A twinkie of a book without even the novelty of creamy filling. If I set out to create the most generic fantasy novel possible I'd wind up with something like Thraxas. This book is hard to acquire in the United States and it is not worth the effort.