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The Man With The Golden Torc, US cover

The Man With The Golden Torc, UK cover

Eddie Drood is a secret agent for his family, protectors of mankind from supernatural (and other) threats, working under the name Shaman Bond. Like all members of the Drood family, he bears a golden torc given him at birth, which transforms to complete, impenetrable (usually) golden armor at a word of magical command. Eddie, sardonic and insubordinate, is the only agent the ancient Drood (read "Druid") family, under the command of its particular "M"—the Matriarch, his grandmother Martha—will tolerate living outside the family Hall, and Eddie, despite a love-hate relationship with the Droods, is faithful in his fashion—right up until he falls out of favor.

And thereby hangs the tale of The Man with the Golden Torc, Book One of "The Secret Histories," a new series by Simon R. Green (book two, we're told, will be Demons Are Forever; and the third may be called From Hell with Love). Things are turned topsy-turvy for Eddie right quick, as in falling from grace with his family, he loses his bearings in the life he knew and discovers new truths about the world's secret rulers. He makes alliances with old enemies, including an especially close one with the Wild Witch, Molly Metcalf, and fights both sides against the middle—or perhaps both sides fight against him in the middle.

That may seem vague, but anything further would involve ruinous spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a fantasy adventure with horror and humor throughout.

This book follows very much the manner of Green's Nightside series, starring John Taylor, currently at seven books, with an eighth in the offing. We have a sardonic, smart-ass hero with considerable power, who still often finds himself in over his head and has to use guile and brass to get himself through, a basically decent sort who will use nasty means when it's necessary or he's pissed off. The Taylor books are limited to the Nightside, a supernatural square mile in the heart of London (which seems to incorporate within itself something like the endless geographical elasticity of the Simpson's Springfield), but Eddie Drood's London is so full of supernatural entities, it might as well be the Nightside.

Green is a prolific writer of fantasy and science fiction, generally in series, who has published over 30 books in the last 20 years or so. His writing is workmanlike (he's improved over the years), but has a certain snap and verve to it, helped along by his hero being a wise-ass, as he is here and in much of Green's work.

So profligate is Green's imagination, or his use of it, that he sometimes introduces a new fantastic idea or personage (many are simply mentioned) every page or two, especially in this book. By page 35 he's introduced, or at least mentioned in passing: a (male) President pregnant by an "agent of darkness masquerading as a ladything" and a demon-possessed first lady, an elf lord, demons, ghosts, aliens, a stigmatic, a firm of exorcists (Dr. Dee & Sons & Sons; motto: We Get the Hell Out), a demon dog, a Hand of Glory, many demon-possessed people, a holy water sprinkler system, a bad luck tattoo, a werewolf, a Time Agent, the Karma Catechist (who knows every bit of mystic wisdom), a serial possessor named Archie Leech, a conspiracy theorist, shape-changing aliens, a secret private club that can be entered from anywhere in the world, Charlatan Joe, Janissary Jane, Indigo Spirit, Dr. Delirium, the Blue Fairy, the Old Ones, subway Trolls, Group Forty-two, a Hyde, Silicon Lily (a 23rd century sex droid), a portable door, and the Drood family in their golden armor. It's a bit like the jokes in the Airplane movies. Some work, some don't; but look at the number of them.

But too often his creations show the thinness of fiction churned out and not deeply imagined or thought through. One never knows if his next conceit will be amusing or a stinker. For instance, Eddie asks a half-elf who owes him a favor to find something that will allow him to enter premises undetected. How the elf produces this talisman is imaginative and evokes at least a moderate sense of wonder, but the thing itself is dubbed the "Confusulum." If that gives you the kind of goose bumps you get when confronted by something stupid or embarrassing, then Green might be an author you want to avoid. Some of his chapter headings give a good indication of his sense of humor, for example: Seduction of the Not Entirely Innocent; Good Golly Miss Molly; You Can Go Home Again (Provided You Carry a Really Big Stick); as do the Bond pastiche elements—"Shaman Bond," and so forth. These add a bit of humor, but that runs out or becomes painful, as is the very name "Shaman Bond."

All this said, Green can still be interesting, amusing, or even impressive, when one of his ideas is "on." But most of the time he's not writing at what seems to be his best or seems too rushed or unconcerned to take pains.

Without meaning to be pointlessly cruel, it might be of some value to use his work to discuss the sorts of things that make bad writing bad (a subset of the endlessly interesting question, What makes bad art bad?). A couple of elements have been noted: weak, uninspired concepts and, especially in fantasy, awkward or silly names.

Another is a discontinuity between those aspects of the fiction which should match real life, and real life as we experience it. In short, does the fiction map? When characters who are not supposed to be stupid act in stupid ways or ways that don't make sense, it does not map. This problem arises, usually, when Green wants a dramatic or exciting scene that would be cut short, or not exist, if the characters acted sensibly. Not an "idiot plot," per se, just "idiot episodes." For instance, when Drood Hall is attacked early on, the Droods simply don't bother, at first, to "armor up," to make themselves invulnerable—something they've been trained to do, literally, since birth. Slaughter ensues. (p. 52). That makes the enemy seem more dangerous and provides drama. Unfortunately, it's laughably stupid, if one is mean enough to laugh at the slaughter. (I know I am.)

Eddie is pursued down a highway by one group of enemies after another, among them, black helicopters. Only after they strafe him does he activate an EMP device that grounds them all. Why wait? If we grant this any reality at all, it's unaccountable. (pp. 84-85)

This same desire for drama leads to a very common fault in sub par fiction (both written and filmed) that runs not only throughout this book, but through much of Green's work, especially the Nightside books, which I call "inconsequence." Things, people, or events don't have the effects or consequences we would expect, given their nature as described (also a type of "mapping" problem), or events precede not through a more-or-less rigorous internal logic, arising from the givens, or even through a more-or-less compelling dream logic (see George MacDonald's Phantastes), but by authorial whim, according to authorial convenience, or by limping along according to no scheme or logic at all. Green wants to present us with a powerful hero—this is a sort of daydreaming or wish-fulfillment fantasy—but in order for dramatic conflict to arise, he has to have weaknesses (the "Superman dilemma," solved by generations of DC writers with "imaginary" stories, green and red kryptonite, and the power of magic) and/or threats against him must be extremely powerful, dramatic, and scary. Still, he can't lose (see "wish-fulfillment" above). So once the threat has been built up to engage interest and raise tension, the hero has to beat it, and how he beats it, often enough, reveals the threat not to have been as powerful as it was touted to be a moment before, or the hero much more so. So we seesaw back and forth: the hero is really tough; the threat is überhorrible and the hero is soiling himself; the hero pulls up an aspect of his power not disclosed until that moment, which renders the threat impotent, or the thing turns out to have an Achilles heel, or otherwise to be a pushover ... and so on. This undermines believability and feels dreadfully ad hoc, just one damn thing after another. Inconsequent.

The worst example here is Eddie's final encounter with Drood Hall and the Droods. They are built up to be ferocious, powerful, and lethally effective, and the Hall a formidable fortress. In fact, the Hall opens up like a glass piñata, and the most severe threat the Droods seem capable of is a stiff letter to The Times.

Another aspect of lackluster writing is simple sloppiness, manifested here in periodic attacks of pointless repetition. Eddie and compatriots are at one point chased through London by a nasty group of thugs in preternaturally armored cars, and a surprising amount of mayhem ensues among innocent bystanders. Eddie notes that he has always worked to keep the "civilians" safe, to protect them from the secret wars he's conducted for his family. He notes it so many times that, as a reviewer, I felt I was reading passages never before read by anyone, not even the author, if you don't count typing as "reading," because even a cursory read should have caught these.

Green's writing is facile and easy to consume; his imagination, though strained by the pace he puts it to, and, over the course of much work, clearly set to run in certain paths, is fertile; his reading and learning in esoterica is broad; and he's clearly a hard worker. His work deserves more care and consideration than his publishers, or even he, are giving it.

Readers of reviews, who do not themselves review, sometimes complain that they can't tell whether or not a reviewer liked the work in question. While it may be helpful and satisfying to know that, it doesn't seem really necessary or even to the point, if the reviewer lays out sufficiently well how the work functions, its context, its aims and how it meets them. For the record, I have more fun reading Green than not, though this book grew tedious in spots, and even at this short remove, I can't remember more than the gist of the denouement. Still, some readers, seeking a fairly dependable source of imaginative, adventurous, humorously dark fantasy, could do worse—far worse—than Green.

Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.

Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.
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