Once a certain strain of ideas has entered into a culture, it can linger for centuries after its root cause has disappeared. Distrust and even hatred of the Catholic Church and "Papacy" stretches through English history from Henry VIII's break with the Church through the 19th century (at least), and even to Anglo-America. In American historian Francis Parkman's introduction to the first volume of his epic study of "France and England in North America," Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), he gave his subject as "France in the New World,—the attempt of Feudalism, Monarchy, and Rome to master a continent," an "antagonism" between "Liberty and Absolutism, New England and New France." The Catholic/Latin side—credulous, authoritarian/submissive, reactionary—represented "the exactions of a grasping hierarchy . . . the [stifling] curbs and trappings of a feudal monarchy . . . " vs. the Protestant/Anglo side, representing reason, progress, science, self-determination, and democracy (France and England in North America, Volume I, pp. 13-14: Library of America edition).
This is one of the things Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero is not about. But then, a lot of Triumff is not about what it seems to be about.
Triumff is an alternate history occurring in contemporary time, in which England and Spain formed an Anglo-Hispanic Unity resulting from the marriage in 1575 of Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain. Very similar setups appear in two well known alternate histories, Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976) (a Europe run by the Catholic Church, due ultimately to the survival of Prince Arthur and his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and Keith Robert's Pavane (1968) ((England conquered by Spain after Elizabeth I is assassinated). In those books we see the outworking of just the kind of stifling repression that Parkman takes for granted as the result of rule by the Church and Catholic autocracies—lack of political and intellectual freedom, rigid hierarchy, and a religious suppression of science and technological progress. The worlds of those books are backwards and, in many ways, unpleasant. Think "the Presidency of George W. Bush" extended to centuries.
Abnett gives us a world superficially similar, except that in the year MMX, under Elizabeth triple-X (XXX), England is not under a Catholic yoke, but has the upper hand over a somewhat surly Spain, and the backwardness of technology is due not to Catholic anti-intellectualism or distrust of science, but to the other pivot event making this history an alternate to ours: the rediscovery and development of "the Arte" of magic (or "jinxing") during the Renaissance, largely by Leonardo of Vinci. "The Arte" provides this civilization with nearly free energy and with means of accomplishing its ends (with mechanical devices run by magic) that obviate, and have crippled, the need for technological development.
You might say it's no fault of Abnett's if he disappoints an expectation he could hardly have expected . . . unless he'd read those earlier books and was determined to avoid the religious question. But why exactly is there an Anglo-Hispanic Unity? Abnett seems to set up the expectation that the Unity and the pivot event of Elizabeth marrying Philip (a nightmare for the Britons of her time) will have some point or significance, other than giving us a basically unified Europe that explains a culture-wide stranglehold on science and progress. There seems to be no specific impress on the culture of the Unity; the royal and religious hierarchies could have arisen anyway. The existence of "the Arte" explains this culture. He could as easily have had a magic-powered Britain dominating the continent, or an Anglo-German alliance or . . . anything. This is fiction, where one presumes things are a way for a reason. That it's this way, and not another, sets up expectations for meaning or a point. But there doesn't seem to be any.
The rest of the world is mostly ignored, except for what, in our world, is Australia. Triumff is an explorer and discoverer, specifically, of a vast southern continent, "Beach," where the "autochthons," left to their own devices, have developed a modern (21st century) culture, "with their mpIII players, their Visagebook . . . their reliable sanitation, their dry martinis, their surfboards . . . " (pp. 40-41). He has brought one of them, Uptil, back with him (echoes of Arthur W. Upfield, author of an Australian mystery series featuring a part-aboriginal detective?). He has to pretend to be a mindless savage, but he scorns the Unity's civilization. As he says, "Magick is the cross you've crucified your cultural progress on, to borrow an analogy from your myths. . . . Yours would be a better world without the Arte" (p. 40).
Uptil must pretend to be a mindless savage because Triumff is desperately trying to hide the nature of Beach. Evidently he thinks that the Unity, with its magic, could ravage Beach. The increasingly difficult struggle not to make his long-overdue report to the Crown is only part of the trouble Truimff is in. Some results from what seems to be a certain haplessness or ill-luck, but while he's a comic hero, he's no bumbler, and in a pinch, is cool, daring, and tough. Also, he gets the girl—in fact, on several occasions—the suggestively-named Doll Taresheet. Though when we first meet him Triumff seems comically inept, hampered while duelling by a sword with a "jinx-powered mechanism" and many different kinds of blade, a product of the Victorinx Cutlers; those who know the company will get the joke (p. 24).
The plot, such as it is, is simple—bad people plot bad things and have to be discovered and dealt with. We know who they are; the (main) mystery is what they're planning, and if and how they will be discovered and stopped. When their full plot is revealed, it seems both overcomplicated and simple-minded, given the powers at their disposal. There's a revelation about the identity of one of the villains that seems interesting, but is also a bit unsatisfying; it may be a small loose end intentionally left open for future installments. The story is fully concluded, but there's explicitly an opening for follow-ups.
The odd thing is that Abnett has the material for a much more significant plot in the discovery of Beach and what that might mean to the Unity. That could supply any number of plots as part of an overarching story about a meeting and/or clash of civilizations. It certainly seems like that's what the book is about . . . until it isn't.
This is the other way in which Triumff is not about what it seems to be about.
By comparison with those possibilities, the actual plot seems like a lot of hugger-mugger, some magic, some monsters, some fighting—fun and all, but with no particular theme or point and no real relation to the "Beach" situation we started with.
It's possible that Abnett is saving that for later books, though he seems to close the door on it. And saving it for later, if that's what he's doing, doesn't help this book. Chekhov's often-quoted dictum about not having a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act unless it's going to be used in the third (quoted in various versions) also applies; Abnett has a whole continent that doesn't go off. And a character, Uptil, who actually seems more interesting and colorful than Triumff (who has something of the non-entity feel of a viewpoint character), but develops into little more than comic relief and muscle. That he comes from a more advanced civilization and has to pretend to be an ignorant savage is, eventually, meaningless. Abnett sells off his most interesting setups for a mess of plottage.
Still, while I may just be an easy audience, Triumff did make me laff. It's tempting to repeat some of the many jokes, which would be unfair, but as an example of Abnett's throwaways, Triumff says, greeting a visitor, "Roger Clarence, the man of whom they say in hushed whispers 'his name is not an instruction.'" Some of the humor, such as this, is the type that appeals to adolescent males of all ages—"guy humor." Or puns. As some writers use extended metaphors, Abnett uses extended puns, such as an "idea hangover" which comes after a night of strong thinks (p. 97). Some humor arises from random-seeming (and often dated) pop culture references such as "the barge Mariette Hartley" (p. 24; no explanation is given). An important protagonist, a forensic examiner who susses out the cabal behind the central plot, is DeQuincey, a shuffling, pipe-smoking plodder who doesn't evoke the 19th century writer and opium taker as much as the hero of the 1970s and 80s TV series, Quincy, M.D., starring Jack Klugman—surely ancient TV history for many readers these days. It's a little perplexing, though reruns, I suppose, are everywhere and semi-eternal.
The effect of these references is to break up the book's surface verisimilitude, and ensure that the reader does not to take it too seriously.
But being clearly marked as a confection does not make the book brainless or simplistic. The writing has a pleasing density of detail and the language an easy richness, with a thick scattering of rare and interesting words, as if it had had a brush with S.J. Perelman (if anyone but me remembers what his writing was like). There are lots of hidden cookies for the knowing reader. For instance, in a small essay on the "Arte" of the "jinx," the magic that powers this world, we're told that "Another hindrance to our understanding of the Arte was described by Doctor John Dee, when he remarked that Magick is not only more complex than we imagine, but it is also more complex than we should imagine." (p. 305) This seems a reference to a dictum of biologist J.B.S. Haldane, sometimes quoted as "the natural environment is not only 'more complex than we imagine, it is more complex than we can imagine'".
The book goes on, "It is a popularly held axiom that mortal man simply hasn't the breadth of mind to comprehend the profound principles of Magick. To quote Dee's other famous aphorism, 'Any sufficiently advanced jinx is likely to baffle the tits off a coypu.'" Which is certainly an echo of Arthur C. Clarke's often-quoted "Third Law of Prediction": "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Of course, if you can match the skewed "quotes" to the originals, it doesn't win you anything. But it somehow enhances the pleasure, a variation of the pleasure one gets from seeing the reflections of real events in the warped mirror of alternate history.
But this is also not a "literary" novel. When Abnett has a load of exposition to convey, he dumps it, more or less smoothly and quickly, and moves on. An unabashed way with exposition is a marker of popular fiction vs. arty fiction, where exposition has to be eased in, disguised, or even done without, a sort of embarrassment.
Reviewers are usually expected to give a sort of "verdict" on books, to tell people whether they should read something. As almost always, that depends. The book is well-written, funny, and entertaining, a bit, but not terribly, like Terry Pratchett's Discworld books (except in the case of another protagonist, Mother Grundy, who owes a bit too much to Pratchett's witches). It doesn't work in minor ways, and it evades, almost determinedly, not only being taken seriously, but taking seriously the points it itself seems to have set up. We can accept and forgive a lot for the sake of humor that works, and there's not much to forgive here, and lots of humor. But despite its real cleverness and intelligence, I found the book, at ending, a bit of a let-down and an empty experience. Or perhaps because of them. So caveat lector.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over two hundred and fifty 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.
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