Tuesday, 2 December 2008

‘Monument’ – Ian Graham (Orbit Books)


Ian Graham’s debut novel was one of those books that I meant to pick up way back in 2002 (it was getting some rave reviews from what I remember) but somehow never did. ‘Monument’ then proceeded to fall right off the radar, as far as I was concerned, as I got round to reading the stuff that I had actually picked up. This was the case up until February this year when I saw this post on James’ ‘Speculative Horizons’ blog. Not only is James a big fan of ‘Monument’, he’s also a guy who knows what he’s talking about and this left me thinking that maybe I should stir myself and finally give the book a go.
It took me a while to bag myself a copy, and even longer to get round to reading it, but I finally managed to finish it this morning. Was it worth it though? Well, kinda...

Ballas is as foul a character as you are likely to meet in fantasy literature. He’s a bitter drunk and vagrant who will stoop to any depths in order to get his next drink and/or whore, even if it means taking the odd beating here and there. Such a beating leads to an act of kindness that Ballas repays by stealing a valuable looking artefact that looks as if it will keep him in wine and women for a long time to come.
Ballas is no scholar so he would never have recognised the artefact for what it really was. He certainly would never have seen that this one act would lead to an entire army chasing him to the very ends of the earth...

‘Monument’ is ‘The Fugitive’ in a fantasy setting albeit without the main character being an innocent party wrongly accused of murder, Ballas is guilty of just about everything he is accused of but more on that later. The end result is one big chase across the land of Druine, culminating in a mountaintop finale, which didn’t sit well with me I’m afraid (although I did like the twist right at the end, had me fooled!)

The ‘set piece’ moments (combat, frantic pursuit etc) made for some exciting reading and Graham is also very good at drawing out the tension in longer passages, the episode where Ballas and his travelling companions are trapped in a city had a real claustrophobic feel to it that demanded my full attention. It was the bits in between that threatened to kill it for me...
Ballas manages to cover a lot of ground, between various incidents, but I never really got a sense of the land that he was travelling through. This time was instead spent on examining what Ballas was thinking and his plans for the future. This constant introspection, combined with a sketchy approach to setting the background scenery up (you know it’s there but there’s not a lot to it) had the effect of slowing things down rather too abruptly and making the pacing of the book too uneven for my liking.

Considering the amount of time the reader spends inside Ballas’ head it’s a good thing that Graham gives us such an interesting character to spend time with. Although Ballas does verge on becoming one dimensional (he really doesn’t have a single redeeming feature) it’s still refreshing to see ‘the quest’ undertaken by someone containing all the opposite qualities to those you would normally expect. At the same time though, it’s also interesting to note that Ballas has more in common with a hero than you would think at first. If the end result is that the right thing is done, who are we to question the motivations behind the acts?

Uneven pacing and sketchy world building made ‘Monument’ a chore to read at first but there’s enough other stuff going on to at least balance out the faults (although not cover them up entirely). I’m glad I finally gave this book a shot and would certainly give Ian Graham another go if he ever has anything else published.

Seven and a Half out of Ten

5 comments:

Tom Lloyd said...

What bugged me about this book is that you never found out anything of substance about his background, when there was clearly lots to know, and Ballas just didn't change at all over the book. The vicious madman as a hero doesn't keep me interested for an entire book unless something changes - when I read The Blade Itself it immediately made me think that Joe had done with that sort of man what I'd hoped Ian Graham would, but failed to. The comparison doesn't work directly, but Logen never really gets away from the monster he'd become.

Graeme Flory said...

There was just enough information given, right at the very end, to make me 'oh, right...' but it felt like it was too little too late. There was enough happening to keep the story moving but Ballas' blatant non-development did drag the story into a bit of a rut.

My thought was that if you're going to base an entire story around a chase then you really need to make either the background or the characters worth hanging around for, preferably both. Like I said, the background was sketchy at best and Ballas trod a really fine line between being interesting to read about and being... erm... the same old nasty bastard page in and page out.

Anyway, how are you doing? And how is 'The Grave Thief' doing?

James said...

You know, Graeme, you're one of the few people to think Monument was 'alright'! Most folks either love it or hate it.

You raise some valid points, though it's been a while since I read the novel so I'd have to give it a re-read to see whether I agree at all.

I ought to point out that Ian is actually writing a prequel to Monument, which will of course feature a younger Ballas. Perhaps we'll find out more about him...

Tom Lloyd said...

Prequal to Monument, interesting...

Yeah, the chase wasn't enough to sustain my interest, however easy it was to plough through, I wanted events to spark off memories etc and give him a little depth. A few lines at the end didn't do enough for me, I like to be drip-fed over the course of a book!

Speaking of which, Grave Thief should be available very soon, I'm told finished copies have arrived and I've started the begging process to be allowed one. It's probably time for you to present your demands to Orion for giveaway copies! ;0)

Graeme Flory said...

James - I got the feeling that this was a 'love it/hate it' book judging from comments that I've read elsewhere. It didn't inspire that extreme a reaction in me though, fun to read but certain issues detracted from what it could have been...