Robert Jordan is most famous for his long-running (and soon to be Hugo-nominated) Wheel of Time series, one of the seminal fantasy series of the of the post-Tolkien era, known for its colourful Darrell K. Sweet covers, meticulous (if recursive) plotting and unrepentant machismo.
Unsurprisingly, Jordan also wrote some pretty good Conan fiction.
The Fallon Blood is Jordan’s - actually James Oliver Rigby Jr's - second novel, and the first that was published. It was initially published in 1980 under another the pseudonym 'Reagan O’Neal', and pushed as a historical romance. It was later republished by Tor/Forge in 1995, with hilariously Wheel of Time-lite cover art (see below). Because, well, worth a shot.
The first of a series, The Fallon Blood follows the adventures of Michael Fallon, an Irish immigrant to colonial South Carolina who winds up playing a prominent role in the Revolutionary War.
Fallon begins his adventures in his native Ireland. He’s returned from being a hussar mercenary on the continent with enough money to start a small farm - despite the oppressive English overlords. Alas, his dreams of bliss are ruined when he skewers one of said overlords, a nasty English soldier who is trying to rape a Irish woman. It is a fair fight (and self-defense) (and, you know, chivalry) and the Englishman is 100% obviously totally wrong, but the world is fundamentally unfair. Much like poor Nic Cage in Con Air, Fallon's been stitched up by an uncaring, un-understanding world. Unlike Nic Cage, Fallon's not going to serve time buying fluffy bunnies from the commissary: Jordan's hero takes off to America.
Fortunately, Fallon’s well-trained practical skills besides skewering the occasional malevolent authority figure. He can read, write and do arithmetic - all skills greatly needed in the New World. Fallon ships out as an indentured servant, but arrives as the the chief clerk to Thomas Carver, a powerful merchant in Charleston, South Carolina.
Fallon ingratiates himself to Carver by being the best clerk, like, ever. As the Hermione Granger of colonial finance, he keeps finding ways to save his employer money. He also endears himself by staying out of both politics and the pants of Carver’s teenage daughter, Elizabeth. Both, however, are tough tests. Everywhere Fallon goes, he encounters revolutionary and monarchist factions. And everywhere he looks, he sees Elizabeth, who is a stone cold hottie. [NB. The uncomfortable leering starts at the age of 16. Eew.]
Fallon’s mad clerical skillz ensure that, when he completes his indenture, he’s in great shape: he’s got money, he’s got a plan (it involves running a rice plantation!) and he’s landed himself a betrothal to Elizabeth. The Fallon future is golden.
For no clear reason, Elizabeth ‘lures’ Fallon into bed, breaking their not-so-strict vow to behave before marriage. Because,... because. (Fallon's been busily shagging a local barmaid since arriving in Charleston, which is, of course, perfectly fine. But Elizabeth getting horny? THE END OF THEIR WORLD.)
Fallon goes to Europe on a trading voyage and, while he’s gone, Elizabeth realises that she’s pregnant. Because that's what happens to bad girls. Rather than be dishonoured, she entices her former suitor, Justin Fourier, into sexually assaulting her. Because... I give up. This is merely the tip of the dodginess iceberg in The Fallon Blood. Justin, now guilty (because, although he's clearly a rapist, it was really her fault?!), marries her afterwards.
It's all happily ever after in villain-land, until Fallon returns... and finds his once-bride-to-be hooked up with his greatest rival.
Spurned in the matters of the heart, Fallon looks for other ways of keeping busy, and accordingly, gets involved in politics. Naturally, he becomes a hero of the Revolution. It is here where Jordan - a Citadel graduate, South Carolina native and military history aficionado - shines. (Well, relatively.)
Fallon is involved, directly or tangentially, in every major Southern skirmish or battle of the Revolutionary War. And even when he isn’t, he’s generous with his opinions and happy to drop strategical truth bombs on the reader's mind-grapes. Jordan sneaks in encounters with virtually every major figure of the period, from Benjamin Franklin to the Marquis de Lafayette, with Fallon providing a handy guide-stroke-mouthpiece for the author's own historical theses.
Although the bulk of The Fallon Blood is spent tracing the Revolutionary War in the South, Jordan doesn’t forget to throw in some more intimate conflicts. Fallon tangles with the entire Fourier family. This includes Justin, who becomes increasingly creepy (seriously, at the end of the book he's essentially the vampire Armand), his father (who is already creepy), his sister (who is not creepy at all - spoilers!), and Justin's two brothers (who are good guys and - yawn). Fallon recovers from the whole Elizabeth "thing" to love, lose, love again, have some kids and generally come out on top - all in increasingly rapid intervals against the backdrop of capital-h-History.
The Fallon Blood in and of itself is nothing more than a mediocre historical potboiler. Billed, I suppose, as a ‘historical romance’, it has an intermittent sprinkling of steamy sex - Jordan methodically describes every pair of breasts in the Carolinas - and a dynastic structure that contains the potential for equally tepid sequels. The author’s heart seems more focused on describing the battles than the characters, and, similarly, Jordan's mouthpiece, Fallon, musters more passion for arguments about the South’s role in history than his romantic partners.
Historical fiction and epic fantasy make interesting bedfellows. Both genres, for example, frequently subscribe to the ‘Great Man’ theory in order to make the action more meaningful. As a result, in The Fallon Blood, Michael Fallon is a historical ‘chosen one’ - his actions have deep significance, and everything he accomplishes is of epic importance - a literary device that fantasy readers subscribe to as a matter of course. He’s also the best at everything, be it clerking, swordplay, strategy, trade, speech-making or sex. Whatever he does, everyone is impressed by how damn well he does it. This is boring, but mostly harmless.
Similarly, on the broadest level, the past can also seem like a secondary world: it isn’t our contemporary reality, and requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief as to society, culture and setting. However, unlike a true secondary world, history brings with it, well, history. The author isn’t starting with a blank slate - the reader will come armed with both facts and assumptions. Unlike a completely imaginary setting, historical fiction has boundaries - the events that actually occurred. Hold on to this thought for one moment.
The other key difference between secondary worlds and the real world, is that the latter comes with intrinsic shades of gray. A secondary world allows for objective Good and Evil - the universe is the author’s plaything, and everything can be engineered to ensure they exist. See, for example, the Wheel of Time - in which there are Light and Darkness, absolutes of good and evil. Colonial South Carolina, despite Jordan’s best efforts, does not come with that sort of moral certainty.
And Jordan does try to that kind of framework to his place. A little too hard, in fact - many, many of the The Fallon Blood’s flaws stem from the author’s attempt to overlay objective good and evil on history events. At its simplest level, we have Fallon as chosen one again: he's not just a physical paragon but a moral one as well: all of his decisions are "right".
On the other end of the spectrum, there is no “Dark One” in human history. However, Jordan does his best to approximate absolute evil by shamelessly demonising all of Fallon’s enemies. The Fourier family are torturers and sadists, murderers and rapists. The British are similarly unmerciful monsters. One particularly entertaining passage contrasts the pro-American partisans - volunteers and heroes, raiding “supply convoys and isolated outposts” - to the pro-British convoys, who “rob and burn” (!) innocent civilians (395). Fallon’s troop of noble revolutionaries protect Ma and Pa Kent and their adorable children. Meanwhile, Fourier’s men torture, kill and rape everyone in sight. Jordan is attempting to infuse fantasy sensibilities into a historical context, and, as a result, everyone involved seems unbelievable.
Jordan’s South Carolina is also the incontrovertible hero of the revolution, with all the characters dropping ‘fun-facts’ about how important it is, and how selfish and/or useless all the other (primarily New England) colonies are. The jingoism alone isn’t particularly charming - it is part of Jordan's stated thesis, above - and completely falls down when the author winds up defending slavery.
[Aside: This is a rather vicious claim - and I do deliberately conflate the author and the character. I don't think this is good reviewing practice - "stick to the text!" - and, in general, I'd never do it. Authors are not their characters, and even the most shamelessly overt 'Mary Sue' gets the benefit of the doubt. However, in the case of this specific book, Jordan was open about having an agenda: it was a deliberate attempt to provide a Southern counterpart to “the general arc of history that is studied in the United States”. If an author confesses to having an agenda, I don't think it is unfair to review with that agenda in mind.]
[Also, this book is terrible.]
First, and perhaps most insidiously, the slaves in Jordan’s South Carolina are oddly... content. “It was strange,” Fallon comments upon first meeting a slave: “The man seemed happy.” (20) Fallon is directly challenging the reader's 'assumptions' that slavery was, you know, awful. Indeed, throughout the book, the only unhappy slaves are the ones that are being tortured to death by the satanic Fourier families. The human beings that are 'lucky' enough to be owned by the Fallon and Carver families are weirdly satisfied.
Second, Fallon himself is a mere ‘reluctant’ slave-owner. An accidental one, if you will. He initially even vows to treat his slaves as indentured servants: after a few years, they’ll be pensioned off and freed. Practically a bleeding-heart. Except when he’s off at war, his wife goes back on that promise. And then, when he returns home, he’s forced to renege on that vow, lest he break an earlier vow to never let his family ‘go hungry or cold’ (440 - interestingly, said earlier vow does not actually appear earlier).
Apparently the first vow (if it existed) holds precedence, so with great reluctance, Fallon continues to keep and import slaves. Yet, somehow, Jordan tries to convey that Fallon still has the moral high ground, because he won’t allow his own “children to suffer”. Jordan asks the reader to agree that he's doing the right thing. Fallon is "forced" to perpetuate one of the most vile institutions in human history. He's got a vow, y'all. Unless he continues to degrade and abuse hundreds of innocent people, he'll lose his chance at titanic, exploitative wealth, and his children could risk growing up... middle class.
On every level, The Fallon Blood is messy, if not outright revisionist. Jordan can be forgiven by making Fallon a physical paragon and political convenience - disbelief can be stretched so far as to explain why Fallon is teh awsum, and it makes for a better story if he's always in the thick of the action. Moral absolutism, however, is a tough enough concept to demonstrate when the author has an entire invented universe at his or her command. Within a historical setting, it is simply impossible to have an inarguable division of Good and Evil. And, as Jordan demonstrates, it can backfire horribly.
No matter how I look at The Fallon Blood, it is pretty dire, and I would hesitate to recommend it to even the most fervent Jordan completist. This an awkward, if ambitious, attempt to make fantasy of history. Despite Jordan’s best (well, ‘mediocre-est’) efforts to imbue it with some sense of entertainment value, it is an appalling and embarrassing failure.