Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: Bloodtide (1999) by Melvin Burgess

There are ripping yarns and then there are ripping your throat out yarns. Bloodtide is the latter. In the broadest terms it's about a post-societal collapse London in, roughly speaking, the year 2100. The city is divided between two warring ganglords who syle themselves as kings, and plot to bring all of London under the rule of one king. Surrounding London is a vast ring of wasteland occupied by the half-men, engineered man/animal hybrids who are hunted and feared by Londoners. To add to the fun the Norse gods are also around, meddling in human affairs for their own obscure pleasures and purposes. King Conor rises to rule all of London, but to do so he must commit an act of profound treachery. He also takes as his wife Signy, the daughter of Valson, his vanquished rival. Conor kills all the Valsons, but unknown to him one has survived: Siggy, Signy's twin brother. Signy pretends to love Conor but actually plots his downfall, which is years in the making. There's a whole bunch more to the story, but that would be telling.

Melvin Burgess has bellied up to the literary buffet and helped himself to Norse mythology, Shakespearean plotting, werewolves, shape-shifters, Dickensian street life, mutants, Brit gangster patois, a bit of steampunk, a generous serving of sci-fi, and he's sauced the whole thing with lots of bone-crunching, artery-spurting violence. What's really gobsmacking about Bloodtide is that Burgess has managed to take all these elements and make them work together brilliantly. It's no mean feat. There are lots of writers out there trying to do mashups in the fantasy/sci-fi field and they usually fail miserably. Burgess succeeds because he's a massively good writer. He uses the various genre elements to flesh out the background to the story and create a dread-filled atosphere, but he doesn't let them get in the way of plot or characterization. Lesser writers tend to fall in love with the bling value, as it were, of various genres and thematic elements, and ignore basic storytelling skills.

Burgess tells his story from multiple points of view, which is always a challenge because it often ends up that one character comes across more strongly than the others. Not in this case. The various characters are all equally compelling, although if I had to name a favourite it would be Melanie, a human/pig hybrid. She's a bit like a Beatrix Potter character forced to live in an earthly hell but still holding onto her decency. At the opposite pole from Melanie is Conor, who manages to combine the less appealing characteristics of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.

The theme of Bloodtide is that power corrupts, but the thirst for revenge corrupts even more. That sounds like a tired idea for a novel, but Burgess articulates it with such imagination and ferocity it feels fresh and original. As dark as this novel is, it's made bearable by it's fast pace; sharp, acidic dialogue; and some seriously hairy scenes of violence. An author's postscript states that Bloodtide  is based (loosely, I imagine) on the first part of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. Here's hoping that there's a second part to Bloodtide.

No comments: