Ash is an assassin, aging and ailing but proficient nonetheless. When we meet him he is quickly imprisoned and only narrowly escapes certain death at the hands of a barbarian king. In the process he experiences a hallucination in which his former mentor tells him he must in turn take his own apprentice.
Thus begins Col Buchanan’s debut novel, Farlander. The milieu is an appealing mix of low fantasy with steampunk trappings, in which Chinese-style mysticism exists alongside flying wooden ships and Dickensian grittiness. This is the "Heart of the World," a convincingly realized environment threatened by an ever expanding empire organized around the fanatical Cult of Mann. For the past fifty years the Mannian Empire has ruthlessly subjugated nation after nation, its nihilistic venality embodied in its Holy Matriarch Sasheen, her fearsome, elderly mother and spoilt, psychopathic son, not to mention ranks of devotees.
The Mercian Free Ports are the last province to stand firm against the encroaching Empire, and the city of Bar-Khos is of strategic importance in this resistance. This is where Ash first encounters Nico, a runaway boy forced to steal to live. When an attempted theft goes badly wrong his companion abandons him and Nico barely survives, ending up imprisoned by the city authorities. Ash offers to release Nico on the understanding that the lad will travel with him and learn the ways of Ash’s order, the Rōshun, thus following the advice of Ash’s one-time guru to find and train a replacement.
In many ways, then, Farlander offers up a familiar tale of mentor and mentee, in which the teacher eventually learns as much about himself as his acolyte. Middle sections of the novel are taken up with Nico’s training, of his enmity and eventual friendship with Rōshun trainee Aléas, and of his ardor for Serèse, daughter of fellow Rōshun mentor Baracha, Ash’s arch-rival. The extended nature of these sections is perhaps the novel’s biggest flaw, as they inevitably tend towards longueurs, but they do render subsequent sections that much more dramatic.
Fortunately Buchanan succeeds in spinning familiar fantasy genre elements in new directions: Ash and Nico’s escape aboard a flying wooden ship is brilliantly realized, and the location of the Rōshun’s secret base is only accessible through consumption of hallucinogenic berries, indicative of an author thinking laterally about the mechanics of the world he’s constructed. When Nico and Serèse start showing an interest in one another it’s predictable that Serèse’s over-protective father Baracha will have something to say about it. Altogether less predictable is the ferocious character of Baracha’s actions.
‘Get off me!’ Nico shouted, as he felt his feet dragging across the floor. He struggled then, trying to break loose of the man’s grip. ‘No!’ he yelled in anger, as the dark opening of the well reared towards him. He tried to get a hand up to Baracha’s face, fingers groping wildly for his eyes. The man lifted his face out of reach. His strength was staggering as he shoved Nico’s head down into the well, tried to get the rest of him inside too. Nico’s hands flailed for a grip against the slimy rim, while the unseen waters crashed deep and cold through the earth below him. (p. 171-172)
Meanwhile, the Heart of the World is in turmoil. Buchanan moves away from the principal characters' point of view to show us the religious and political machinations shaping events. The mix of the epic and personal is effectively handled, granting the world and its inhabitants a degree of verisimilitude they might otherwise have lacked. The Cult of Mann is a terrifying, convincing creation, artfully detailing the ways in which fanatical religious devotion, greed, and fear can enable monsters like the Holy Matriarch to dominate a people and even an empire. By comparison, the Mann’s rambling, squabbling political and military opponents look for all the world like the League of Nations, unable to agree on a strategy for combating the spreading empire.
Buchanan is equally adept at fleshing out what could easily have been a set of one-dimensional, overly familiar templates. Ash, the eponymous Farlander, is a world-weary, taciturn figure for whom honor is all-important, whose affection for his protégé is touchingly, gradually adumbrated. We see most of the events of this world through Nico’s eyes, and he is often cowardly and incompetent, so that when his bravery manifests itself it is all the more believable and therefore engaging. The other principals are perhaps less well-rounded: Ash’s rival Baracha is the overbearing father, Serèse his feisty but beautiful daughter, Aléas a Mannian acolyte who begins as Nico’s adversary but transforms into his friend as the story progresses.
In fact, compared to some of the supporting characters, the three villains are perhaps better realized. Sasheen, queen of the Mannians, is essentially a gangster who has risen to the highest echelon of this society using familiar techniques of intimidation and exploitation of the gullible, and whose relationship with her own mother recalls that of Macbeth and his wife. The plot hinges on the actions of Sasheen’s son Kirkus, the Caligula-like heir to the Mannian dynasty, whose adolescent petulance is given lethal free reign to devastating effect. It’s the crazed, blood-lusting excesses of this spoilt rich kid that initiate the chain of events forming the novel’s central strand.
Buchanan has clearly thought through the nature of Rōshun in considerable detail, conjuring up a sect with a baroque collection of rituals. Crucial to the plot is that when commissioned to carry out an assassination the Order must discharge that task, regardless of the consequences. When Kirkus rapes and murders the daughter of a minor functionary the Rōshun must enact revenge on the perpetrator, irrespective of his status within the Mannian hierarchy. It falls to Ash, Nico, Baracha, Aléas, and Serèse to fool their way into the Mann’s capital city, intent on discharging the Rōshun’s duty. The Holy Matriarch, at root a protective and paranoid mother, in her turn declares war on the Rōshun, sending a defector from the sect to lead a team of Mannian soldiers to destroy the Rōshun’s secret monastery.
The final act of the story, in which the quintet try not only to evade the Mann authorities but also to carry out their mission, while Mannian soldiers simultaneously seek to raze the Rōshun monastery, ups the momentum considerably. The outcomes of these actions themselves lead to a series of unpredictable further consequences, including a mammoth, wholly unexpected twist.
Buchanan has delivered an arresting debut. Farlander is a book that, because its subject matter reflects contemporary concerns with how the world deals with fundamentalism, resonates long after the final page. In the texturing of its story-world and ability to shock and surprise, it promises great things to come from this author.
C.B. Harvey is a London-based writer and academic. He was the winner, in 2006, of the first SFX Pulp Idol award and his published fiction includes material for Big Finish's Doctor Who and Highlander spin-off ranges. He is a Principal Lecturer at London South Bank University.