By way of introductory remarks I’d like to say that after a few chapters of Miles Cameron’s bronze age on steroids extravaganza, Against All Gods, I knew I was both going to like and dislike the book.
So it proved.
Let me start with the good. I am fascinated by the eastern Mediterranean in ancient history (and beyond, although I don’t know enough about any of it yet). It is so rich in myth, history, and cultural interchange. It was the hub of a world that has left its mark everywhere. To get stories set there is a big tick. I was so happy when I saw we were going to some plays on Mesopotamia as well as Greece. Sticking some blood and intrigue on top of that? Ding dong. Cameron does write a very good action scene after all.
I think that pitch is going to get a lot of interest and I hope it leads to more fantasy works set there. We are getting a lot of literary-esque biographies of mythical women from the area, in the mould of Lavinia and Circe, and that’s great for those as likes them but I hope it doesn’t put a stranglehold on what stories we get in the mainstream market using that place for inspiration.
Alas, we must now get to the things that didn’t work for me. Cameron writes a very good action scene, and he also loves sprawling multi-arc narratives set all over the world. When an author starts a series that way, it’s like throwing a dart at a board that’s been shrunk to really quite small for me. One half of getting me to like a book is getting me to like what the characters do, being interested in what they have to say, and jumping around between them just makes it very hard for that to happen.
As such, I swung along for half the book, more observing than feeling the narrative, never quite settling in. Every time I thought I was finally getting into it, something jogged me. I put it aside for a bit in the hope not reading fantasy for a bit would cleanse my mind. When I came back I found something else that kind of sealed the deal.
I don’t like Cameron’s storytelling voice.
Oh, I knew I didn’t love it for a while. I knew I wasn’t a huge fan of the mix of archaic splendour and modern barracks that propelled the characters’ speech – neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. But I started finding a few lines that brought it very much home, too vague and unadorned for their moment in the story and jerking me out of the story. And if character is half of getting me to like a story, voice is the other half.
The exact line that got me the wrong way came at the end of a climactic battle scene halfway through in which characters’ beliefs were challenged as well as their lives. Right at the end, at what felt like the keystone moment that would bring it all together, came this line:
“Aanat’s whole face lit up. There was so much emotion there that Zos had to look away.”
For me, it was just too simple, too unadorned, too lacking in poetry for such a moment. If I’d been fully in the story, I would have filled in all the blanks in my own mind, maybe even love its laconic nature, but it had the opposite effect.
In fact, I know this because I just looked at my review of Cameron’s Cold Iron and look what I said:
“I like Cameron’s prose. He pens clean, balanced sentences and paragraphs that are strong with character and neither stint nor overwhelm with description. It has an easy rhythm to settle into.”
What is good when I’m on side, is a weakness when I’m not.
I’d actually brought up that review to see what I’d said about his tendency to insert characters who find all of life a bit too easy, which was one of my big gripes with that book, but now I’m there I’m finding a few other remarks I can lift wholesale. “The interweaving of realism and fun in general just didn’t work for me on a number of occasions” – that one is very true. Cameron likes to create big cinematic worlds with big cinematic characters and when I’m there, I just want to have fun. Uncovering subtle moral probing is fun, but finding things a bit didactic isn’t. I also find big cinematic pacing can struggle with developing the level of emotional weight needed to make big moments land, and so I found it here. Some of the big decisions just felt a little short of meaning, and were built up to be big when in fact they felt really quite easy. Of course the characters were going to rebel against the gods.
I can’t help but feel I wouldn’t have felt that way without the very large number of PoVs and locales. In fact, this is my fourth Cameron book, and I’m saying a lot of the same things as I did in previous reviews, but I am at my most negative after being fed the largest number of PoVs and locales to start with. That’s one hell of a coincidence.
Maybe I just typed a lot of words that could have been condensed down to “when I can’t get into books I nitpick like the nurse at a large school and nothing stops me getting into books like hopping around the narrative too much”.
That realisation feels like a good moment to type less words. I hope this review helped tell you a bit about the book. A good summary would be Miles Cameron writes larger-than-life tales of bloody adventure in vivid settings with quick pace, laconic prose, and idealised protagonists. He has done so again here, with a huge sprawling narrative in a bronze age setting. For some people that’s a sell, for other’s that’s not.
For me, it’s enough of a sell and enough of a not that I wind up very frustrated, and what I liked got very much eclipsed by what I didn’t. Hopefully you are otherwise.
I was given a review copy of this book by the publisher in return for an honest review. I’d like to think Gollancz for their generosity. Against All Gods is out now.