BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: On the frontier of an Empire squabbling with the indigenous elf-like inhabitants and its global rival, a fateful trip shepherding a governor and his family upriver throws two mercenaries into intrigue and danger.
PROS: Strong pair of central characters; excellent and original worldbuilding; gritty, sharp and potent action and dialogue; a beautiful book cover.
CONS: A few more thousand words to flesh some of the worldbuilding would help clarify some matters.
BOTTOM LINE: An absorbing turn into secondary world fantasy that deserves a wide audience.
The Incorruptibles is a turn into secondary world fantasy for John Hornor Jacobs, best known for his horror and dark fantasy. In it, Dveng “Shoe” Ilys and Fisk are a pair of long-time partners in the mercenary business in the territories. Their current job (along with their young recruit, Banty) is to shepherd a bunch of rich Rumans — a Governor’s family, no less — as they steam upriver on their riverboat. It is Banty’s impulsiveness, however, that will bring these mercenaries into close contact with Gnaeus’ family, and it is the mercenaries that will stand between the family and the very dangerous frontier. Not even the feral elf-like vaettir is the most dangerous thing in the Territories, not when a potential failure of the real reason for Govenor’s Gnaeus’ trip upriver could mean a world war.
The spiky, multifaceted, inventive worldbuilding of The Incorruptibles is a real treat to unpack. The world is a secondary version of our own, with the Rumans (Romans), Medierans (Medes: Persians) in a global cold war (threatening to turn hot) that spills out into the author’s version of the New World. Now add in firearms, infernal pacts that run those guns, as well as trains and steamships, a feral elf race called the vaettir, dvergar (dwarves) and the frontier western feel of an alternate North America, complete with ill-tempered buffalo (aurochs). The Rumans are not exactly Romans, but the deep well of Roman culture that being tapped goes much deeper than most people who borrow from the Roman Empire. It’s not only the bits of Latin, the occasional title, and tripartite roman names that you often see in fantasy that borrows from the Roman Empire, but a real borrowing of family life and culture in all of its messy and sometimes alien drama, structure and conflicts.
The narrator (Shoe), his partner (Fisk), and the constellation of characters about them make for a compelling set of protagonists. With a half-dvergar as our narrator and viewpoint character, we get an alien fish-out-of-water protagonist which allows commentary on all of that worldbuilding. It also provides a foil and counterpart to Fisk, who most definitely has secrets of his own. Banty, their protege, with his impulsive actions, sets the character gears into conflict and motion.
Against Banty, Fisk and Ilys, we get Governor Gnaeus’ family — a bickering, squabbling, feuding and scheming lot who are breathed into memorable life. This spoiled set of patrician Rumans (and their retainers on the ship) make for an interesting contrast to the more plebian mercenaries. Questions of honor, of promises, loyalty and conflicting desires, goals and responsibilities put all of the characters through well-developed arcs and help propel the plot along at a relentless pace that draws a reader through the narrative.
Whenever the family drama seems to get too oppressive, though, the narrative turns to sharp, biting action that winds up the readers and the characters. The vaettir make a dangerous, canny enemy on the frontier and they aren’t even the worst evils and trouble that Fisk and Shoe have to face. Combat and violence in the frontier setting is swift, brutal, and always with the very real risk of permanent consequences.
The only real complaint I have against the book is that it is sometimes a little too lean and mean for its own good. Some aspects of the worldbuilding could use a bit more fleshing out. In particular, those readers only passingly familiar with Roman culture might miss some of the shorthand the author uses to describe what is one of the few Roman-inspired cultures I have read that tries to goes beyond the skin-deep trappings many are familiar with. (In this regard, The Incorruptibles reminds me of David Drake’s Books of the Elements novels.) It’s not a perfect replica of Rome, but the deep inspirations are in strong evidence.
The book currently only has a U.K. release, and so may be more difficult to find than usual for readers outside the U.K., but for an original, sharp take on frontier fantasy, The Incorruptibles is well worth the effort to find.