BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Bone and Gaunt, a thief and a poet, journeying to a mysterious land to elude the implacable assassins behind them, find themselves in the coils of the politics and mythology tying into Bone’s unborn child.
PROS: Innovative structure; beautiful flowing writing; interesting premise.
CONS: Pregnant status of Bone sometimes sidelines her from the action as a character with agency too much; ending is problematic.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining entry into a sword and sorcery world and its characters.
Picaresque stories rise and fall on the strength of their protagonists and the settings in which they find themselves. If the roguish characters are not appealing or distinctive, the story loses its power to charm and the reader loses interest. Fortunately that is not the case in Chris Willrich’s first novel The Scroll of Years, which features Imago Bone (a thief who has not aged for 70 years) and Persimmon Gaunt (a magic-device-using poet) who go to interesting places like Qiangguo, a realm based on mythic, wuxia flavored China. Oh, and did I mention that they are a romantic couple, and most unusually for fantasy fiction, Gaunt is pregnant with their child? Furthermore, that child’s destiny has connections to the realm from which they have fled? They are being chased by the Night’s Auditors, implacable and possibly invulnerable mage-assassins. How’s that for distinctive?
Far and away, the writing is what stands out in The Scroll of Years. The dialogue between the characters is natural, the descriptions lush and memorable, the action sequences crisp and sharp. There are dollops of cerebral humor — fitting given that one of the protagonists is a poet and her lover’s age and experience gives him the ammunition to keep up with her intelligence. The skill of the writer goes beyond excellence in technical prose, though. The novel itself is structured as stories within stories, with a complex, intricate structure that reflects and comments upon the tangled events they describe. It’s a serious and sustained effort that pays dividends for the observant and careful reader.
Too, the relationship between Bone and Gaunt is a highlight of the novel. It’s uncommon to have a couple be the protagonists of a sword and sorcery novel. It’s even rarer when that couple is expecting to be a real family. The poetic Gaunt and the business-oriented Bone are an interesting pair in how they differ and how they work together. Their relationship, especially with the events surrounding Gaunt’s pregnancy, is thoroughly examined and severely tested in the novel. I am not quite certain I like the denouement of the novel in that regard.
As mentioned above, Qiangguo is a realm heavily influenced by mythic China. Having Gaunt and Bone be strangers to this realm on the one hand, and having local characters as viewpoint characters on the other, allows the reader to see the rich world from both the outside and the inside. Secret societies, bandits, a magical scroll, and yes, dragons, all figure into the landscape in more ways than one. It’s a richly evoked setting for the reader, all coming to vivid life.
Chris Willrich had previously published stories of these two characters in various venues, but this is the longest adventure of theirs to date. Chronologically it’s the latest in their relationship. The Scroll of Years also includes the first story in their cycle, “The Thief with Two Deaths”. Rather than feeling like filler, it was a nice way to bring around the relationship of Imago and Bone to where it all began. The feel of their story, ultimately, is very much like L. Sprague De Camp’s Reluctant King series. A Sword and Sorcery world, evocatively described polities with colorful inhabitants, political situations, and problems. Plus a hearty leavening of humor, excellent dialogue, action and polished writing. Like that series’ main character Jorian, I’d follow the adventures of Imago and Bone wherever the author wants to take them next.