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REVIEW: With Fate Conspire by Marie Brennan


Title: With Fate Conspire
Author: Marie Brennan
Pub Date: August 30th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A risky undertaking that is more than half-successful.

A while back, I received a review copy of Marie Brennan’s With Fate Conspire, the fourth in her Onyx Court series. Now, let me start with a confession: before receiving my copy, I hadn’t read any of the earlier books. I know, I know – alternate/secret history set in various periods in London’s history? Liking historical fantasy as much as I do, one would think I had devoured this series from the first book up to now. But for whatever reason, I missed it until finding its fourth volume in the mailbox. Holding the book in my hand, I faced a choice: I could either catch up on the previous three books, or I could just dive into the fourth. Doing so would be a risk: would I miss vital backstory or world-building? I didn’t know. But I justified my decision with the fig leaf of “someone else might pick up the fourth book first, right?”

With Fate Conspire is set in an exceedingly well-researched late nineteenth century London. It features two primary viewpoint characters: the mortal Eliza O’Malley, a poor woman of Irish descent living in the London slums and Dead Rick, a faerie skriker (a Lancashire name for a lycanthropic faery who is an omen of death – more commonly known as a Black Dog) living in the Onyx Court’s Goblin Market. When we first meet Eliza, we quickly learn that she is desperately seeking a way to track down the faerie who kidnapped her lover seven years prior. When we first meet Dead Rick, we find him brutally forced to work as a slave, enforcer, and errand-boy for Nadrett, a criminal kingpin in the Goblin Market. Connecting both perspectives is the accelerating industrialization of London: the rise of iron-based industry and the development of the London Underground Railway are destroying the faerie city.

When we first meet both characters, they already have interesting pasts. Eliza’s lover was kidnapped by faeries and she foiled a faerie terrorist attack on the London underground. Dead Rick’s past is more mysterious, but it somehow put him at the mercy of Nadrett. At first, I assumed that these histories were the backstory that I had missed by not reading the earlier books. But then I realized that A Star Shall Fall is set more than a century before With Fate Conspire – which means that their backstories could not possibly have been in the pages I’d skipped.

When I picked up the fourth book in the series, I risked missing out on vital backstory. But writing the fourth book in the series, Brennan took a similar risk: she placed the moment of displacement – the point where Eliza and Dead Rick’s adventures start – off-screen. This is a particularly risky approach: by not allowing us to participate in her protagonists’ displacement, Brennan risks our investment in the characters and their world. I really enjoyed the structure and courage that this showed, but I found that the risk was only partially successful.

Dead Rick is modeled as a hero (see my post on A Theory of the Hero). We are shown his desperation to survive the Onyx Court’s imminent collapse, and his willingness to commit violence, but there remain lines he refuses to cross. He is a moral character, despite the self-loathing we see. He is an aspirational hero who wants to survive while still doing what he feels to be right. He may not always succeed, but he continues to aspire. He is used to show us the lawless underbelly of the Onyx Court, and the amoral brutality of some faeries. The challenges he face are existential: will Nadrett kill him? Will he survive the imminent destruction of the Onyx Court? Will he become like Nadrett to do so?

The portrayal of Dead Rick and faerie society were the high points of the book for me. First, I always enjoy well-drawn heroic characters. The challenges which Dead Rick faces are packed with drama. On an individual level, the unflinching depiction of Nadrett’s brutality and Dead Rick’s desperation make him particularly sympathetic: I cringed to see his experiences and wanted everything to work out for him. At the same time, his story becomes a microcosm of the Onyx Court’s story. Dead Rick’s experiences concretize the drama of the Onyx Court’s collapse by showing us the little guy’s perspective. Dead Rick is no chosen hero, capable of saving the Onyx Court from London’s industrialization. He can barely keep himself alive, let alone save the faerie city. But it is his courageous struggle against insurmountable challenges that makes his story a page turner. In Dead Rick’s case, Brennan was able to successfully skip his backstory: the sympathy he engenders, his emotional stakes, and his relationship to the Onyx Court’s broader struggle were enough to earn my investment.

By contrast, I found Eliza to be the far weaker character. If Dead Rick is defined by his rough moral code, then Eliza is defined by her obsession with tracking down Owen Darragh. This is not an existential challenge. The worst-case scenario for Eliza is that she never finds him. But because we did not get her backstory, we are not as invested in her quest as she is. Brennan tries to make Eliza sympathetic using tools parallel to those used for Dead Rick: Eliza is a poor costerwoman of Irish descent. Her experience of London is that of the down-trodden and the discriminated. While this works to make Eliza somewhat sympathetic, her story lacks the emotional tension of Dead Rick’s. The dilemmas she faces are not moral in nature: she rarely needs to choose between right and wrong, or the lesser of two evils. Short of killing innocents, she’s happy to cross almost any line in her quest. Her challenges are almost always tactical, and they fail to mirror or concretize those of broader mortal London.

In Eliza’s case, skipping of the backstory did the character a disservice. It made it impossible for me to really invest in Eliza’s travails. This problem is especially apparent when compared against Dead Rick’s storyline. Eliza’s difficulties and choices are inconsequential when set against Dead Rick’s primary problem (the catastrophic collapse of the Onyx Court).

That the faerie perspective is more compelling than the mortal one probably should not be a surprise. The Onyx Court is the primary constant throughout the (surprise surprise) Onyx Court series – which in and of itself is an interesting structural feature. Most contemporary fantasies that deal with the world of faerie tend to be either portal or intrusion stories where the focal lens is a human who finds themselves caught up in the magical world. In those stories where a human isn’t our lens, we often see through the eyes of a faery who – for all intents and purposes – tends to be indistinguishable from a super-powered mortal.

When writing a series, most authors take the safe approach of following one set of characters as they progress through events that can be encapsulated within a mortal lifetime. But Brennan takes a different path. Rather than give us characters to follow over the course of a single escalating adventure, she instead opens a window onto a particular time in the history of the eternal Onyx Court. The effect is like tuning into a long-running TV series mid-episode, mid-season. By nailing the faerie perspective – and lending it continuity throughout the series – Brennan is able to diminish the impact. Yet the relative weakness of her mortal character (Eliza) underlines the fact that the faeries – and how the Onyx Court deals with the challenges it faces – are the author’s primary concern. I am curious whether the mortal characters in the earlier books are as weak as Eliza.

Despite Eliza’s weakness, With Fate Conspire remains a very good book. Dead Rick’s story is – in my opinion – enough to carry it, and ultimately make it a satisfying experience. The world-building and research stand out for the level of detail and the skill with which they are woven into the story. The book’s pacing was fairly solid, providing moments of rising tension and breaths where I could assimilate the plentiful skulduggery and intrigue. Fans of “London Above / London Below” fiction along the lines of Kate Griffen’s Matthew Swift novels (see my earlier review), Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: A Novel, or China Miéville’s King Rat will likely enjoy With Fate Conspire, as will fans of painstakingly researched and imagined alternate/secret histories like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: A Novel, or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can offer is that after finishing With Fate Conspire, I went out and bought the preceding three volumes. Brennan took a significant risk structuring this book as she did, and while she may not have succeeded as well as I might have liked, neither did she fail. I applaud her courage, and her skill for getting it more than half right. I’m looking forward to the preceding three books.

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