I don’t know about you chaps, but I don’t remember too much about 1998. I got a full-time job at the old dog & dansette, moved into a flat at the top of Woodseats Road, and thought – briefly – about buying a Playstation. The few albums I remember buying at the time (though there must have been much more than this, given the creaking sounds of massed vinyl coming from the attic): Air’s Moon Safari, Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, Six by Mansun, Good Humor by Saint Etienne, Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev, and Aluminum Tunes by Stereolab (I definitely remember that one – I have two copies of it, one sealed, the other smelling faintly of unrefined oil). And at some point in the year, though god knows when, I bought The Barbed Coil, by JV Jones.
This is one of my favourite books. I may have mentioned this previously, on the Next Big Thing meme. The Book of Words trilogy which preceded it was pretty good, though not so good as Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow & Thorn series, but The Barbed Coil is damned good. In the 15 years since Orbit first published it, I don’t think many people have actually come close to it with another standalone epic fantasy novel. Characters, setting, intricate detail, romance and bloody death – all pinned with perfection. Hell, I think you could call this book one of my inspirations.
(In fact, if you look closely, three of my all-time greats are plucked-from-the-world-we-know-to-a-new-fantasy-world standalone novels/duologies: Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson, The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams, and The Barbed Coil itself. That says a lot about my reading habits, I guess.)
The book’s protagonist, Tessa McCamfrey (is anybody else hearing an echo of Anne McCaffrey, or is it just me?) is pretty pro-active, once she gets a handle on her situation. Having her learn the rules of magic, which here operates through manuscript illumination, is also a neat way of showing how the land itself works, how difficult and time-consuming any task in a medieval world must be. Tessa isn’t a weak character either – she’s not reliant on men for her success, and the plot advances most by her decisions. Her opposite number – her first contact in the new world – is the roguish Lord Ravis, who might be dashing eye candy, but certainly isn’t an invincible hero. (Writing this, it occurs to me that his name is startlingly similar to the character Rais, who pops up in my current WIP – perhaps a subconscious nod to The Barbed Coil?)
In fact every single character is sympathetically cast, even the bad guy. And nobody comes away unharmed – there’s no magic reset button that puts things back to how they were before. The characters change over the course of the novel; change and develop, so that the reader is rooting for real people to win the day. And note again that this is a standalone novel, not a great sprawling series. You want more at the end, but that’s it, that’s yer lot. In this way reader fatigue never sets in the way it does in the 57 novels of The Wheel of Time, or Jones’s own subsequent (and as yet still unfinished) series. That willingness to keep the story at a manageable length is something that isn’t common in the fantasy market, and that also made me look at how I wanted my own story to be told. My tendency to overwrite always made a single volume unlikely, but stretching Malessar’s Curse into a trilogy seemed like overdoing it. Two books mirrored the narrative’s structure very nicely.
If you are going to read this, try to get the British edition (see pic above), with cover art by Daniel R Horne, which illustrates Tessa as a far more active character than the US version does (it just looks lumpy and staid, like the US Wheel of Time covers). But do read it: this is one of the under-appreciated gems of modern fantasy literature.