(Tactile Books, 2009: ISBN 9780980518634)
(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, January 2010)
Disclaimer: Ian Nichols is a member of the Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative, to which body I also adhere. Thus my objectivity in the context of his writing might be called into question. However, aware as I am that my primary duty as a reviewer is to you, the reader, I shall task myself with fulfilling that duty in as impartial and honourable a manner as I am capable.
I should first reveal, perhaps, how I came by this book. Ian is a formidable salesperson, as anyone who has shared a sales table with him, at a convention, will readily attest. I shared a sales table with Ian last year, at Conflux, soon after the release of this novel. It rapidly became plain to me that there were only two options open to me: either (a), agree to purchase his book at full price, or (b), press him for a free review copy.
I selected option (b), and I am rather glad I did. Although selecting option (a) would have been no bad thing, either.
The Whorl and the Pallin (hereafter W&P) is Nichols’ first novel, although he has also produced a rather good collection of short stories (Son et Lumiere, published by Broken Art Press) and a slim volume of verse, the name of which currently eludes me. Nichols’s short stories are generally erudite, well-structured observations on life through the varicoloured lens of speculation, tending more often (in my recollection) to SF and/or horror than to fantasy, and tailored to the adult reader. W&P is fantasy, it’s definitely targeted towards a “young adult” readership, and it’s really rather good.
W&P’s protagonist, Tom Chantry, is a recent orphan whose options for any kind of a home life, in fact for any means of continued existence within the village of his birth, have all evaporated. So Tom, aged approximately 17, hits the road. And then the road hits back. Tom and his newfound partner-in-crime, Peter Stone, find themselves driven into the waiting arms of a military recruiting officer: the Army, as ever, is in need of young blood, and whatever their own thoughts on the matter, both Tom and Peter fit that bill. Besides, can army life really be that bad?
That depends, of course, on whether there’s a war on. And whether your opponents have powerful magic at their disposal, and a willingness to use it almost regardless of the consequences.
This, essentially, is the premise that Nichols sets up in W&P. And, on most if not all fronts, he delivers. The story propels itself along, action is dispatched efficiently, characterisation is handled cleanly and with honesty, the uses and limitations of magic are explored consistently, and in sufficiently unobtrusive a fashion that the narrative is not impeded. Overall, the story has a solid, thorough, plausible feel to it. And even Tom’s unique attribute, the aspect of his psyche that leads you to suspect the author may have distinctly bigger things planned for him, in a projected second, third, or subsequent volume, is something at once so distinguishing and so limiting that Tom, who is eternally front-and-centre within the book’s events, is never in any danger of becoming a Mary Sue (or male equivalent thereof).
If pressed on the matter, I might suggest that W&P has a slightly old-fashioned air to it. There’s little about the book that couldn’t, in fact, have been written fifty years ago, or a hundred. But when the story’s setting is an essentially pre-industrial, magic-infused landscape of warring nations and city-states, a modernist approach (or worse yet, post-modernist) is hardly appropriate, and runs the risk of anachronism. As far as I can tell, throughout his tale, Nichols abides by the rules regarding the realistic use of cavalry, sailboats, and musketry, so the book should pass muster with those concerned with such things.
Overall? It’s an absorbing, propulsive tale that’s well suited to the teen market, but which also rewards readers who might no longer fit within that particular age constraint. It deserves to be read. And, so far as I know, option (a) is still available.
(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)