Wednesday, 8 September 2010

‘And Ministers of Grace’ – Tad Williams

I was conducting one of my periodic culls of the ‘Reading Pile’ the other day (seriously, it has to be done otherwise the walls of the house would be bulging quite severely by now...) and realised that my copy of the George RR Martin & Gardner Dozois anthology ‘Warriors’ was sat right at the bottom of the pile. It was doing a fine job of supporting several other hardbacks but obviously hadn’t done such a good job in terms of being read by me...

There were a couple of reasons for this, the main one being... have you seen the size of this book? If I was to take it on the commute to work then I would probably have to buy the book its own train ticket. Big books don’t work so well with me these days so invariably get left to their own devices and forgotten...
The other reason was that the majority of the authors inside didn’t really appeal, either through their choice of subject matter for the anthology or based on books of theirs that I’d read before. I didn’t get rid of ‘Warriors’ though as there were two authors whose stories I was definitely up for reading. Tad Williams was one of them, you can probably guess who the other one was and now the book is in front of me I’ll be reading his novella real soon.

I’ve been a big fan of Tad Williams since the late eighties when I picked up a copy of ‘The Dragonbone Chair’ based on a recommendation I happened to see in a newspaper. These days, I’ll still pick up anything that has his name on it. If Tad Williams was to write a two page children’s book called ‘My House is Red and it has a window’ I’d still buy it, just to see how many windows the house really had... :o)
It’s been a while in coming but there was never really any question that I wouldn’t read Williams’ tale of a cybernetically enhanced religious assassin sent to kill the leader of an enemy world and, as is typical of Williams’ work, I really enjoyed it.

After having been fed a diet of Williams’ typical ‘doorstopper’ sized epic tales, it made for a refreshing change to come across one of his stories that was only twenty odd pages long. The sheer scale world building that Williams is known for (which some might say is on the excessive side, I don’t mind it personally) is sacrificed in the name of ‘available room’ but you still get a sense of massive amounts of world building sat just off stage. The world of Arjuna isn’t described in great detail but the ease with which it sits on the page suggests that a lot more than twenty odd pages worth of work went into its creation.

This stripped down version of Williams’ normal work allows the reader a lot more time to dwell on what ‘And Ministers of Grace’ is really all about. Lamentation Kane is a warrior of God and we get to see him put all his training into action in scenes of high octane violence cleverly merged with military tech that you will have seen before (think ‘Bane’ meets ‘The Terminator’ meets ‘Altered Carbon’) but still makes for both plausible and entertaining reading.

Williams shows his reader what kind of a warrior Lamentation Kane is through the scenes of combat and these are worth sticking around for. What’s more interesting though is Williams’ exploration of a warrior utterly submerged in the culture of the enemy and left to fend for himself. The constant babble of Arjuna’s internet equivalent constantly stretches Kane to breaking point and there is parallel drawn with the biblical ‘Tower of Babel’ that may not have much to do with the story itself but is still interesting to note. Kane knows what he has to do but the conditions that he is working under make this job his hardest one to date and it’s how he copes with this that makes for compelling reading.
Kane is not the only warrior at work on Arjuna and it’s also interesting to see fleeting glimpses of others in this role. It’s clear that Williams sees being a warrior as being an attitude just as much as a matter of training and he explores this in different ways, with different characters, in order to really flesh out the covert war being fought on the planet.

The only issue I had with the story was when the two opposing ideologies finally get to debate their case. While the arguments do serve their purpose, I think I was hoping for something a little more original rather than lines that I’d seen trotted out in other, similar, works.

What is good to see though is the position that Williams leaves Kane in at the end of the story. Kane is still a warrior at heart but is finally able to pursue his own destiny. I reckon there’s mileage in this particular character for at least another story and I wouldn’t mind seeing what life has in store next for Lamentation Kane...

Eight and a Half out of Ten


Bush League Critic said...

I was pleasantly surprised when "And Ministers of Grace" turned out to be one of my favorite stories from the "Warriors" anthology.

Surprised, because I'm one of those who finds Tad's world-building in his novels excessive.

It gives me hope that he may yet write a novel that I'll love.

Nothing would make me happier ;)

Adam Whitehead said...

I'd seriously advise reading the whole thing. Several of the stories in there are brilliant, particularly Robert Silverberg's and Naomi Novik's (and I say that as someone who is not keen on the TEMERAIRE series), whilst Robin Hobb's story is the best thing she has written in years and years.