Snakewood is one of those rare books that pisses some readers off by simply doing what books are supposed to do. Challenge.
A Review of:
Adrian Selby’s Snakewood
Martin De Biasi
Ostensibly a fantasy novel, Snakewood is about a band of ex-mercenaries hunted by a mysterious assassin decades after they’ve disbanded. The Twenty, led by the impossibly capable Kailen, are a rogues gallery of swordsmen, druids, archers, horse whisperers and Princes from across the realm whose deeds are the the thing of song, myth and notoriety some two decades later. Aiding various kings and kingdoms in a fractured world held together by the Post, a kind of militarised UPS, Kailen and his mercs are forced back into the thick of it when someone starts picking them off one by one.
Swords & Shrubbery
Perhaps the key selling point of Selby’s debut novel, and what undoubtedly grabbed my attention, was the use of plants and herbs by warriors to gain advantage, create poisons, or just get high.
I’m reticent to use the words ‘magic system’ in regards to the relationship between plants and people in Snakewood. Like the rest of the book it’s more a heightened reality then magic. Ingesting plants of various kinds and getting effects… of various kinds, isn’t magic. In fact some of us probably know a guy who can make that happen right now. Also ‘magic system’ is a bit of a silly term, it’s a book, not a card game.
Anyway experienced warriors only make it to veteran status because they have access to the best mixes, made by the best drudhas (like a druid, pharmacist and nutritionist all in one). As the novel tells us more than once, ‘When you come up against a crew, you’re really coming up against their drudha.’ The Twenty weren’t only lead by a smart strategic mind, but also had access to the best mixes. Chief among them, The Honour, a poetically titled fight brew that is among the best in the realm.
Death & Dialects
Kannab, ephedra and lute are among the plants used to concoct mixes; fightbrews give soldiers a ‘rise’ that makes them stronger, faster and keener in battle, while dayers give the soldier better vision, hearing etc. This is generally paid back later in the form of a comedown. Addiction is a key consideration. Gant and Shale, two of The Twenty who have continued to fight on as solders for hire, show signs of slowing down as age catches up with them.
Gant, as one of our narrators, is particularly adept at showing the bleak, bittersweet life of a career soldier who would be long dead if he didn’t have access to the best brews. He and Shale share an intimate understanding of each other’s pains, aiding their friend through wounds and repairs, applying ointments and keeping one another alive. It’s a relationship that Selby nurtures through the novel, at odds with the largely individualistic motivations of most of the other characters.
Gant’s point of view seems to draw criticism, with many readers finding the soldier’s slang and dialect too much to swallow. This again contrasts with other criticism of all the voices being ‘too much the same.’ While early on I struggled to get to grips with the language of the world, (it’s as unique as it is pervasive) the slang and cadence of Gant’s narration does create a kind of mottled, patchwork narrative akin to the colouring you might find on the skin of veteran warriors who have ‘Paid the colour.’ There’s also a humbleness in his nature that is at odds with his proficiency with sword and bow.
Morally, Mortally Grim
While there are characters in Snakewood that are more protagonist and others that are more antagonist or anti-hero, Selby is able to walk the line for the most part. As a reader I felt empathy for most of the central characters regardless of their eventual lot, though I didn’t like too many, in fact maybe just 2 or 3.
Despite The Twenty being almost uniformly men, there are several female protagonists / antagonists in the story. It’s hard to talk about characters in Snakewood without spoiling the narrative, which while not particularly big on mystery, does have a number of reveals. Sexuality and gender diversity are represented, though I’m sure if you turned it into a quantifiable metric, you’d probably be unhappy (probably because you wasted time quantifying a narrative).
I don’t know if there can be said to be winners in Snakewood, and I don’t find myself agreeing with any particular point of view or the occasional flourish of moralising, but then I’m not sure Selby is sermonising. It’s on the characters lips we find their motivations, not the authors. What I do think is that Selby demonstrates how violence perpetuates in cycles, and how in a violent world, few remain untouched.
So why the snakey reviews?
One the surface there’s a ready made audience for Snakewood. But this audience seems to be largely rejecting the story as ‘too complex‘ ‘jumping around‘ and conversely ‘too obvious‘. It’s also received criticism for using 1st person narration for all the characters that we follow.
This is only partly accurate. Snakewood is told through ‘found footage’ diary entries, accounts and epistolary stories assembled by a single character. His name is Goran and his actual words are probably a few hundred at most, scattered throughout the chapters introducing new threads or explaining why certain accounts have been left out. Goran is the ‘editor’ of the book ‘Snakewood’, which is presented as an inworld document the way Johnny Truant presents House of Leaves (though Truant plays a much larger role in HoL).
This stylistic choice is perhaps where the ready made audience starts to break down. Grimdark fantasy generally plays a pretty straight bat with perspective and narration, but these two elements are what gives an author licence to start questioning our preconceived notions about how the story should be. Snakewood also usurps it’s own genre by providing a more circumspect and even-handed view of the cruelties, fraternities, vagaries and mage-ries of life and death in a grim fantasy world.
Turn the action up to Twenty
Snakewood moves along at a fast clip. Battles (of which there are many) are close fought skirmishes, bows and swords, smokes and poisons. Things catch fire (trees, houses, jails) and people die quickly and painfully, unless they’re risen on a fightbrew, where they might die later and slowly, very slowly.
Selby makes small efforts here and there to point out that many of the nameless slain are younger than our assortment of heroes, painting a rather sad picture regardless of who you are cheering for. It’s also symbolic of the ‘better days’ and ‘fallen civilisation’ feel that permeates the world of Snakewood. Selby’s world building is woven into the narrative, and everything has a subtle lived in feel, yet places are really just settings for action and development, so don’t expect too many amazing vistas, temples or glittering cities, it’s all very real and down to earth.
You’ll like Snakewood if you like revenge stories, Seven Samurai / Magnificent Seven (though it’s not a rehash of that narrative) or are attracted to what some describe as ‘experimental’. Snakewood has a lot in common with military fantasy like Black Company, but it also recalls films like the classic Eastwood western, Unforgiven and more recently, the Korean film War of the Arrows (2011).
The Thin Red Line is another story where Snakewood finds some purchase. Both narratives try to find poetic meaning in the lives of violent people without romanticising it. Both examine the soldier behind the weapon, and both are ultimately tragic tales of death and loss.
This is where I think Snakewood has chosen an interesting path, perhaps outside the venn diagram of marketable ubermensch fantasy fiction, yet so thoroughly grim in it’s execution that no literary snob worth their gender studies degree will give it the time of day. It’s by no means a perfect novel. The plot is kind of obvious, the battles sometimes outstay their welcome (at other times they are incredible) and the overpowered characters lack critique. But what it does is deliver a classic revenge style action story in a thoroughly unique world that is entertaining and full of pathos.
For a novel from a first time author, we should be impressed.
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