Peasant girl Fen was born in the shadow of the mine and will die in the mine, just like her father did. Just like the people of Village Twenty-One have done for 1,000 years, serving the tyrannical Queen Servilia and the order she maintains with cruelty and magic. Or maybe she won’t, because Fen is something neither she or Servilia expected. Suddenly, Fen’s dark hair is turning red.
Author: Arthur Slade
Review Rating: 4 stars
A smooth trip (for the reader, anyway)
Crimson is a high-fantasy buddy-hero road movie. Our bickering main cast are crabby and petulant and very good fun. Everybody is compromised by their experience of being orphaned. Ithak is transparent (ha!) in his snarky self-interest. Marcus is devoted to the Queen not just as his mother, but as all women, which is a life choice I think young men should avoid if possible. Fen is trying to be who she is without being entirely sure what she is. One of them is carrying around a stone finger in a bag.
The writing is clean and frequently delightful. Author Arthur Slade moves from the big picture to the tiny detail smoothly and the reader can enjoy the ride. The world-building is interesting and enjoyably weird. There is a clear, beautifully expressed vision that seems to form effortlessly. Arthur Slade makes the hard stuff look easy.
Solid as roots in the earth
Fen’s practicality and earthiness (ha ha!) contrasts sharply with the sky-wide reach of the Queen (always remembering that the sky begins down by our feet). Fen’s magic is natural; the Queen’s is industrial. Fen never asked to be the force that changed the world; the Queen demanded it. Fen worries about the fate of all people; the Queen cares only about the Queen. Other than a shared appreciation for red-headed men in armour, there is nothing that unites them: not womanhood, not experience of life, nothing. Fen is able to empathize with everyone, and I’m not sure Queen Servilia cares what even her shiny Marcellus thinks or feels.
Fen’s mother’s presence is felt throughout the novel, in the form of her simple but durable moral code. Crimson avoids the problem of a novel with a teenaged female protagonist having only cruel and corrupt adult female characters, and there is a sweet continuity as Fen goes on to model principled womanhood to her little sister. In a world where it isn’t entirely clear who are the goodies and who are the baddies, there is a stability at the core of Crimson for the reader to hang on to.
A big novel in a small package
There is a self-indulgent tendency for fantasy novels to be 600 or 800 or 1,000 words long, as if Tolkien set an unchangeable template and as if Lord of the Rings was never slow or boring in places. I hate that, so I would never encourage it. But… there is room for a bit more of Crimson. It comes in at 260 pages, jaunty and brisk in the first half and then accelerating like a bullet train through the second half.
Distances are compressed and the human scale is abandoned. Revelations come so fast late in Crimson that they don’t have time to settle. Everything is equally important (or unimportant) if the reader doesn’t have time to feel them. The impact of seeing mythology revealed to Fen as truth or lies is incidental to the action. The theme of destiny vs free will, of morality vs obedience, comes so close to engaging with the apparently monolithic Queen’s Guard before arcing away. “Maybe there were others like Marcus,” Fen wonders sadly, and I wonder that too. Questions on a postcard to Arthur Slade, Land of the Living Skies, Canada.
But I complain because I love. Crimson is overflowing with ideas and places and images and people, and I want to spend more time with it. If your choices carry you towards an inevitable destiny, make one of them Crimson.❤