Unpacking the 2014 Eisners - Part 2

Underground Reading: The Path of Anger by Antoine Rouaud

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

Path-of-angerAntoine Rouaud's The Path of Anger (2013) is the author's debut and the first in a trilogy, The Book and the Sword. It was initially published in French, by Bragelonne, and is translated into English by Tom Clegg.

I'm sorry to do this again, but The Path of Anger hinges on a big bastard of a spoiler that occurs at the halfway point. I really can't discuss it properly it without revealing it. The conclusion has been left deliberately spoiler-free, so if you'd like the general gist of things, you skip all the way down. Or, well, sorry.

What happens?

The Path of Anger is a book of three, er, halves. My math may seem lousy, but bear with me.

The first half...

Viola, a young historian in the equally-young Republic, is searching for a lost sword - the last Emperor's own blade, Eraëd. Her path leads her to the wonderfully dodgy port city of Masalia, the city where 'all things are possible'. Viola finds a drunken soldier at a bar - someone with a lead to the sword - and, with a very small amount of digging (scratching, really), discovers that he is actually a legendary hero of the now-fallen Empire: Dun-Cadal Daermon. With little prompting, he tells his story.

Dun is upset about the Empire collapsing and, you know, stuff, but, as far as he's concerned, his life really ended the night his young apprentice, 'Frog', was killed. Frog saved Dun's life in the early days of the revolution, and, in turn, Dun taught him to be a knight.

Frog was always obsessed with being the best, and with Dun's curt tutelage, he became one of the outstanding figures in the the Empire: a hero and a dragonslayer. Frog's dubious origins, however, were never forgotten. In the Emperor's paranoid final moments, he ordered Frog killed, and the Emperor's Hand (an assassin and Dun's other apprentice) did the deed. Dun spent the rest of the revolution in a prison cell and then fled when the Republic took the palace. 

Now, General Dun-Cadal Daermon is drunk in Masalia, regaling Viola with his tales and watching the Emperor's Hand murder high-ranking members of the Republic. The latter is, as you can imagine, a mixed pleasure.

Second half... 

Good lord, the Emperor's Hand is Frog! He didn't die! They switched clothes! And he was a traitor! And he never killed a single dragon!

The second half of the book repeats the first half, but this time from Frog's perspective. And, boy, did Dun get things wrong... Frog's actually the sole surviving heir of the family that started the rebellion, although, in fairness, he cares less about the glory of the Republic than the opportunity to annihilate a lot of the conspirators the killed his parents and siblings. He spends the war lurking in Dun's shadow: the Empire's greatest hero and its deadliest traitor.

Third half...

Dun and Frog face one another as who they are now, and come to grips with the situation. Just in time, too, as it is all kicking off. The past sorted, the two warriors head off the foil the conspiracy, headed by Azdeki, one of Dun's old rivals, that prompted the war in the first place. Action scenes. Dramatic deaths. Speeches. Slow fade. Roll credits.


What worked for me

The Path of Anger has, at its core, a phenomenally ambitious structure - and it works. Dun and Frog's twin narratives, despite covering exactly the same material, are genuinely captivating. 

The narrative toys with the reader's affections. Dun is our hero. Very traditional, very upright - the jaded old soldier trope, combined with some paternal plucking of the heart-strings. He is the last Great Man of the Empire, a champion of right and chivalry and dignity. How could we not feel his pain when the Empire takes his apprentice - his son - from him? This is a man that has given everything to the Empire (and undeservedly, we can all agree), and instead, they take it all away. 

But, from the very first moments of Frog's point of view, the reader learns that all the rules are off. Everything changes. Dun isn't a shining paragon of chivalric virtue, he's a brutish thug of the powers of evil. Frog is our hero. He's the orphan, the Chosen One - the last scion of an ancient and noble house, dedicated to bringing enlightenment to the world and freedom to the people. The sacrifices Frog has to make are brutal and terrible: his 'heroism' for the Empire makes him the enemy of the people he truly loves and regards. Frog is a man who has given everything for his cause, but the Republic refuses to acknowledge that he even exists. 

The result is a book that takes achingly familiar epic fantasy tropes and constantly forces the reader to reassess them. Who is more a hero? Who is more chosen? Which of them made the right-er decision? The Path of Anger uses black-and-white building blocks to make a picture that's utterly and completely gray.

Esyld's story genuinely surprised me. This ambiguity also expresses itself in Frog's relationship with Esyld, his childhood sweetheart and one true love. Although the latter, we learn, might not be true. As a child on the run, Esyld is always there for Frog (real name: 'Laerte', by the way - I prefer Frog) and their love is transcendent and pure. Later, when Frog is in Dun's shadow, Esyld is his contact in the resistance - and lover. After his 'death', Esyld and Frog are separated for years, and when they are reunited during the course of The Path of Anger... well, she just ain't into him. 'The past is the past,' she says. He was dead, she's moved on and, hell, she's fallen in love again. With someone else. Frog keeps trying to convince himself that she's the victim of some cutting plan, but he knows it isn't true. Despite the traditional shape of a fantasy romance, their love is over. While he's been devoting himself to his revenge - his 'Chosen One' path - Esyld has gotten on with her life.

The book focused on what mattered most. The other reviews I've seen allude to the book's sparse world-building, but I saw The Path of Anger's unwavering focus on the two characters as one of its& advantages. And certainly it did everything it needed to do: Masalia was vast and seedy, the Empire was suitably vast and sprawling, the McGuffins of Book and Sword were...uh... bookish and swordish. This isn't a story that relies - or needs to rely - on fiddly ornamentation. Its essence is very much captured through the intimate emotional details: the tense, hazardous, devoted relationship between two immensely strong-willed men, who are heroes and champions of their own particular paths. The decision to cut out the fluff around the men felt like the right one to me. 

Boom went the animusThe Path of Anger also had some properly silly crowd-pleasing action sequences. One cinematic behaviour I'm particularly fond of is when people smack the ground with things and cause magical shockwaves and whatnot. I'm pleased to say that this happens a half dozen times. Also: a training montage. Also: blasting snarling monsters into the air with magic. Also: a hooded man (with a pair of daggers, no less), whirling his way through a legion of armed men. Also: shooting arrows into barrels of gunpowder. As far as balance goes, The Path of Anger does an excellent job combining extremely introspective inner monologues about father-son relationships and ludicrously over the top action sequences. I approve.

Duke de Page is awesome. As a final note, The Path of Anger may have the only gay character in any of the shortlisted books I've read so far - Duke de Page. He's one of the major figures in the 'third half', he saves Frog's life and delivers both Frog and Dun the vital exposition information that they require. De Page is an enemy of Azdeki and his plot because he's keen to undermine a religious culture that has declared him the enemy. De Page isn't so bothered about the Empire or the Republic, he wants to remove the Book itself. He sees it as a symbol of moral absolutism, used as to justify the viciousness and bullying of people like Azdeki and his own father. The Path of Anger's theme of relativism is again reinforced by De Page's actions: this is one of our heroes; a man fighting against the notion of good (or Good, and to be fairness, also capital-e-Evil).

What didn't quite do it

Pretty much the entire third 'half' of the book. After the intimate pace of the Dun and Frog narratives, the 'present day' components of the plot felt rushed. Nor did I find them particularly easy to care about. It is fortunate that the three major characters in the final act - De Page, Dun, Frog - all had personal reasons to battle Azdeki and foil his scheme, as the actual repercussions of what his scheme, or indeed, what his scheme was, were incredibly vague. Apparently he was going to use the Book as a way of getting the church to dissolve the Republic and declare him Emperor. Which is a very roundabout way of being a Big Bad. 

Nor, I'm afraid, did our heroes' method of stopping him make much sense. Somehow, despite the a legion of mercenaries, barrels of gunpowder, an unstoppable assassin and a magical sword, the plan was something involving public ridicule and stabbing the Book. You'd think there'd be easier ways to get things done (hint: stab the dude). And the denouement is equally messy, with Laerte off on a new quest and a new villain being promoted from the ranks of henchmen. I don't doubt that everything in the final section of the book is consistent and explicable, but the sheer onslaught of activity made for utter chaos - a clanging TILT! after the sleek narrative wizardry of the first two parts.

Esyld is the only woman with agency. The others are pretty poor. Dun has a long-standing girlfriend, an ex-courtesan/now-madam (of course) with a heart of gold (of course) who takes care of drunken Dun with absolutely no reward. Their relationship is defined by the fact that they don't have children together. In Dun's case, he has the two son-figures, and this helps explain his attachment to them. In Mildrel's case, their lack of children just makes her feel... slightly worthless. Eventually, Dun has a choice between her and Frog, and, naturally, he chooses the latter. 

The other female character is Viola, who is the following: a) a listener (she prompts Dun's story), b) hot (we learn this a lot) and c) the precocious young child who grows up with a crush on Laerte and uh-oh, she's a woman now! This is a book that has shining moments of subverting cliches and turning the traditions of fantasy upside-down. Viola is not one of them.

And in conclusion...

[If I scared you off about spoilers, you can come back now!]

The Path of Anger is an odd one to review, as it is a fantastic book (the first two parts) and a mediocre one (the last part), welded together. And the shift between the two is oddly disruptive. All in all, there might be a bit of frenzy to the ending, but, to be honest, writing that sort of high adventure actiony stuff feels almost like the 'easy part' - the rest of The Path of Anger demonstrates a rare expertise at the 'hard part', and that's impressive.

This kind of narrative craft is fantastic to see, and I'm always delighted to read a fantasy book that tackles tropes so aggressively. There's plenty in here that will please fans of traditional fantasy - beautiful people, jaw-dropping combat and promises of Destiny and Quests and such. But, and perhaps more importantly, The Path of Anger also revisits those traditions with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

Yes, but, what do the Gemmell criteria think?

'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:

  • Secondary world: Yup.
  • Traditional: Yup. Knights! Orphans! Empires! Magic swords! Crazy monks that see the future!
  • Heroic: Yeeeeeeeess... Now, granted, this is a book about relative heroism - that is, one side's greatest hero is another's most feared villain. But, ultimately, there's also an underlying belief in good that's shared between text and reader. The characters in the book are stumbling around trying to figure it out - to 'realign their moral compass'.
  • Epic: Dubious. The first two parts seem deliberately not epic - a study in dismantling of 'big quests' in favour of secret, individual, personal motivations. The final part, however, is clearly the gateway into a larger epic: destiny, magic items, fate of the world, etc. etc.
  • High fantasy: Yes. /slams fist into ground /guardsmen scatter like paper cups

'Excellence' criteria:

  • Entertaining: Yes. As much as I keep slating the final part of the book, on the whole, this is an extremely enjoyable novel with a readable style, some great action and a compelling 'hook' that kept me from start to finish.
  • Innovative: Yes. And exactly the sort of 'innovative' that I had in mind for this category. The Path of Anger is 90% a traditional epic fantasy, but that last 10% is ingenious, and turns the rest on its head. This is a fantasy that uses all the building blocks that we know, but in off-kilter and thought-provoking ways.
  • Reactionary: Some positives, as noted above, but the majority of the female characters are still awfully exasperating. Fundamentally, we're still reading a book about the relationship between two men, and how that connection is more important than anything and anyone else in the world. That, in and of itself, isn't problematic, but the way that characters like Viola and Mildrel make their own lives and stories secondary is frustrating. 

Right, only one left in each category... exciting times!