Cockayning It Up

by Arthur B

Arthur thinks Steve Cockayne dropped the ball in the first volume of his Legends of the Land series.
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Oh dear. After reading 100 or so pages of Wanderers & Islanders, Steve Cockayne's first novel in his Legends of the Land series, I was all ready to give it an excited and enthusiastic thumbs-up. But a hundred pages later, and I'd simply lost interest, as Cockayne had managed to take an intriguing start and ruin it with a thorough injection of stupid.

Before I get to the bit where the book falls apart, though, let me praise the more interesting parts of it, because they are extremely interesting and should be encouraged. Cockayne clearly knows his source material and shows good taste in drawing inspiration from Arthur Machen's stories of a hidden maybe-supernatural race living in parallel to humanity, and I also detect a hint of Lord Dunsany and other founding fathers of the fantasy genre in Cockayne's approach to the concept. In an unnamed kingdom which sort-of resembles England at various points from 1850 to 1950, three parallel stories unfold. Leonardo Pegasus, court magician, becomes enthralled by his mysterious new assistant Alice, to the point where he misuses the future-perceiving wonders of the Empathy Engine to manipulate his way closer to her. Rusty Brown spends a boyhood summer making friends with a young girl with a strange secret, who vanishes from the village under mysterious circumstances. And Victor Lazarus, a retired military officer, answers a mysterious job advertisement only to find himself in command of an effort to restore a creaky old mansion which might just be haunted.

Not content with tackling a multiple-viewpoints story for his first novel, Cockayne goes out of his way to try and write each segment in its own distinct style. To be fair, in the early stages of the book this works quite well. Lazarus's segments are written in a creaky, archaic style which constantly threatens to slide into full-blown pseudo-Lovecraftian doggerel, but does a fair job at avoiding that for the first part of the book. (It helps that these bits are mercifully brief). Leonardo Pegasus is a bumbling bureaucrat who can't work up the nerves to ask his secretary out on a date, and his segments unfold in a fairly light, almost-comical way, like Pratchett without the footnotes and puns or a slightly less endearing Fly By Night.

And then we get to Rusty Brown, whose segments are far and away the best part of the novel. Rusty's segment is an almost-allegorical coming-of-age sort of story of the sort that LeGuin and Lewis and Dunsany are so good at. Whereas manifestations of the supernatural in Lazarus's bits are in the form of malignant manifestations, and in Pegasus magic is expressed in technological terms (fitting considering Pegasus's nature as a sort of occult civil servant), the magic of Rusty's segment is more evocative and mysterious - strange carnival games, weird circus acts, ritualistic dreams, frightening nighttime escapades, that sort of thing - a particular sequence involving witch-dances and a sunken bell provides the most striking and suggestive imagery I've seen outside of The Dark Is Rising. Whereas Lazarus is threatened by an outside force, and Pegasus utilises fundamental cosmological principles for utterly mundane ends, I got the impression that Rusty was briefly coming into contact with a sort of transcendent force, a higher and truer reality than his mundane world. It's been years since the adventures of a growing boy and his dog have seemed so profound to me, and it's telling that Rusty's segments seem (by my count) to be the most extensive in the earlier parts of the book; they're also the most polished.

Of course, Cockayne has set himself up for a fall. Sooner or later, these disparate strands must meet, and in their meeting their fundamental incompatability wreaks merry havok, and not in a good way. Worse still, Cockayne's method of intertwining the stories is the most ham-fisted and unsubtle plot device I've encountered since China Mieville (who, incidentally, really likes Cockayne and probably incorporates into his spurious "New Weird" subgenre) gave a minor character an Infinite Improbability Drive in The Scar so that all of the events of the novel could be undone so he wouldn't have to worry about effecting some actual change in his pristine little snowflake of what clearly used to be his homebrewed Dungeons & Dragons campaign world when he was 17 but is now his excuse to set mildly juvenile and uninsightful statements about politics against the background of a world where all the elves have bugs for heads.

Wait, I'm sorry: this is an article about how massively disappointed I am in Steve Cockayne's wasted potential, not how massively disappointed I am in China Mieville's wasted potential. Let me try that again.

There comes a point in the book where Cockayne can't help but try to blend these fundamentally incompatible narratives together. This in itself is problematic for me; I didn't see any reason why Rusty had to encounter Leonardo (for example), partially because I thought that Cockayne had done the clever thing of having the three stories unfold at entirely different points in history, so that they could influence each other but never had to directly intermingle...

...actually, I'm going to go off on another tangent quickly. My belief that the three stories were taking place in different time periods was based on the internal hints woven into the text - for example, electricity is described as a new and experimental thing in Leonardo's story, and it is implied that its use is highly limited. In Rusty's narrative, electric lighting is used by a travelling circus, implying that it is in wide use. In Lazarus's Lovecraftian ordeal, there's a mention of aged electric generators in the basement, implying that electricity has been around long enough to be rolled out for domestic use, for rich individuals to have their personal generators installed in their basements, and for said individuals (or their heirs) to abandon the generators for long enough for them to fall into a state of disrepair. The fact that the three stories seem to be undeniably simultaneous is incredibly problematic, since it makes a nonsense of Cockayne's portrayal of the setting - sure, by all means mix elements of different time periods in an evocative fashion, Steve, but do try to keep track of whether electric power is rare and experimental or a long-established technology. I know super-consistent worldbuilding isn't something we necessarily place a high priority on here in the ferrety brain, but the only thing worse than too much worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is directly contradictory worldbuilding, because the contradiction tends to startle attentive readers like myself and wreck our delicate suspension of disbelief.

Anyway. So we get to the part where Cockayne has these three mutually incompatible lumps, and he's trying to make them fit together in the same time frame. This is a bit like trying to mash a jigsaw piece that won't actually fit by whacking the thing with a hammer until it bloody well goes in, and the results are just as discordant and ugly. Steve begins this process by killing Rusty's dog and having Rusty go catatonic, and then having Rusty willingly join a tribe of wild cannibal children who roam the capital city's slum district murdering and eating people. This would seem to be an unusual emotional response on the 18-year-old Rusty's part to the death of his dog, given that he had to cope with the apparent death of his favourite childhood friend when he was at the tender age of 8. The incident seems to be little more than a transparent stab at wiping Rusty's personality and forcing him to get into position in order to stumble across Leonardo and Leonardo's sexy assistant later on.

But this is not the only device that Cockayne deploys in order to do violence to the plot. He has a much heavier and vastly less subtle sledgehammer to wield. It's a character (maybe several) who can jump inside people's heads and make them do what he/she want them to do (the usual order is "manipulate that protagonist into advancing the plot thusly"), and who starts doing this with irritating regularity. To be fair, this isn't an ability which is completely unprecedented - the entity in question has been doing it for a while in order to work its mischief in Mr Lazarus's haunted mansion, the metaphysical basis of it (everyone's connected by a tiny fragment of God lodged in their soul) is explained in Rusty's story, and Leonardo seems to be on his way to inventing a device which will allow him to pull off that very trick. But even though it is a well-established element of the world which meshes with the themes of the story, it still at the end of the day winds up being a crutch that Cockayne uses for the purposes of lazy storytelling. Why come up with a coherent reason to explain why a particular character behaves in the way they do when you can just have your master manipulator from behind the scenes make them do what you need them to do?

If the godling in Lazarus's attic is Cockayne's least subtle tool for shepherding his protagonists down the path he has chosen for them, it is at least not the most offensive one. No, the most offensive motivator in Wanderers & Islanders is a bit more general than that: it's the perfidious and manipulative nature of womankind, as seen through the eyes of Steve Cockayne. Essentially, just about all of the named female characters in the book fall into one of three broad categories: interfering busybodies, manipulative bitches who use magic or sex or social graces to get what they want all the time, and achingly lovely unattainable whispy fantasy figures who invariably drift out of reach of the male protaognists and cause them much hurt as a result. Actually, I'm being a bit unfair, it's a bit more nuanced than that: some women actually fall into two of those categories at the same time. (Rusty's lost childhood pal arguably exists in all three). And there's two characters who don't fit the bill: Rusty's mother is pretty much devoid of all personality beyond Hard-working Single Mum, and Veronique, court jester and drinking buddy of Leonardo, acts in such a stereotypically laddish way I can't work out whether Cockayne a) deliberately wrote her like that so that he could point to her and say "See, I don't stereotype women - that character acts like a stereotypical male FHM reader instead", or b) wrote her as a dude originally and then switched her gender about. Either way, she - like pretty much every other woman involved in the book - exists more or less solely to motivate one of the male protagonists into action, which when you think about it is a pretty poor depiction of men as well as women.

This abject failure to depict women as actual human beings is the sort of thing that I can just about ignore if it's the occasional hiccup buried in the middle of a work of genuine worth, but when it's a constant irritation in the middle of the book which started out extremely promising but then rapidly declined into mediocrity it makes me want to toss the book across the room and give up. Which, eventually, I did. Between the lacklustre female characters, the plot-sledgehammer and the mutual incompatibility of the three narratives, Wanderers & Islanders simply didn't quite manage to keep my interest. Cockayne would have been better off writing three different stories which might have shared a few themes, rather than telling them all at once and trying to blend Susan Cooper, Lovecraft and Pratchett in a sort of flavourless mush. And he'd be much better off if he'd sort out his depiction of women.
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