The Strategist – Gerrard Cowan (Review)

The Machinery is broken, and the old order cannot hold. Its downfall has let back into the world many creatures once forbidden, and they have begun to build strongholds and armies for the struggle to come. Charls Brandione, a former general, Aranfal, a secret policeman, and Canning, a merchant-turned-mandarin-turned-something-else-entirely, must learn what they can about this brave new world. Most of all, they must learn how to stay alive in it.

Perhaps I can best give the feel of The Strategist by  quoting a line of dialogue that comes up a lot: “What is this place?”

Throughout the book, various members of the large cast of characters find themselves somewhere mysterious, often accompanied by a cryptic and powerful guide, and ask this question. In response they are treated to paragraphs of densely hedged exposition about what has come before, seasoned with a few dark hints about what will follow. If this sounds like your cup of tea, and particularly if you’ve read the previous volume, then great! But if your tastes run a little more towards the immediate and the explicable, you might want to look elsewhere.

I’ll say this for the The Machinery trilogy: There is definitely something there. When the narrative shakes off the urge for all storytelling to happen in the form of potted histories delivered by mysterious figures, the world revealed can be intriguing. By far the most compelling strand in this volume is the story of Drayn, a young woman from an aristocratic family with a wardrobe straining at the seams from all the skeletons inside.

But overall, the ratio of mythological background to real-world events feels dangerously top-heavy, as if the entire Greek pantheon were responsible only for the life of a single alienated accountant.

Myth often has its own dreamlike logic, and it’s that logic which seeps into every page of The Strategist, making it very hard to understand the characters’ motivations and hence sympathise with them. Things just sort of happen. People wander in and out of their enemies’ clutches, being lectured on the long-dead (or is it?) (it’s not) past.

From time to time, a new capitalised noun of great import is introduced – The Voice, The Boy, The Gamesman – which results in the reader feeling slightly beleaguered by the amount of backstory they must carry with them. Building up a clear map of how everything fits together is surprisingly difficult, which has unfortunate implications for how nicely the plot hums along.

Although it’s called The Strategist, it’s hard to understand why. There is a new Strategist at the beginning of the book, but in fact she has a comparatively small part of the action: There’s far too many other entities intriguing amongst themselves for her apparent reign of terror to make that much of an impact on the plot. There are at least a handful of viewpoint characters, whose stories only rarely intersect, making it hard to pick out the overall narrative.

On one level, it’s easy to see where the series goes from here: By the conclusion of the book, a struggle has been set up in a workmanlike fashion the resolution of which will clearly have implications for the future of the world. But outside of that, I wonder how well the series will cope with a transition from the treacle-slow exposition-by-dialogue of the first two volumes to a resolution which will hopefully involve at least one thing happening.

Buy it here.

In the interests of transparency, it should be noted that I was provided with a free copy of this book through Netgalley.


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