The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs
In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way up stream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it - from raiders, bandits and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do.
In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together.
For Fisk and Shoe - two tough, honourable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other - their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky.
And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.
This new release from Gollancz is a vicious mix of the Wild West, steampunk and the Roman Empire, where the race of humans called Rumans are at the top of the heap and mercenaries like Fisk and Shoe are at the very bottom. However, with the shadowy stretchers killing more openly and often, they are hired to protect the rich Governor, his family and an extremely valuable young woman as they make their way upstream in the wilderness in a demon-powered boat.
Told in reminiscence by Shoe, or Shoestring - a half dwarf, this is very bloody grimdark fantasy where people get scalped, shot, mauled, set on fire and die in a whole range of nasty ways as the Rumans try to excise their control over the Empire and its material assets, particularly silver mines, and battle against the immortal and almost mythological stretchers. By harnessing daemons, the Rumans have developed an industrialised society where trapped imps provide light and far larger and nastier daemons are used to power machinery like the boat. Hellfire weapons are commonplace, with bullets containing minor daemons set free once the bullet is fired, but Shoe flinches at their use and is convinced a piece of the user’s soul is taken every time they are fired. With Shoe narrating the story this use of daemons feels threatening and unnatural; a great device for helping build the background tension.
Shoe and Fisk have known each other a long time and have the kind of partnership that doesn’t need many words - but this time they have a young man on the team, Banty, full of piss and vinegar, and when the mercenaries get drawn closer to the Governor and his family an already bad situation suddenly gets a whole lot worse.
I really liked The Incorruptibles - it’s fast paced, action packed and has its own unique feel to it with its unusual mix of Westerns, daemons and Ancient Rome. Put like that, it sounds like a mess, but weirdly it somehow comes together as a more industrialised version of Joe Abercrombie-style dark fantasy that also reminded me of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. There’s a nice streak of humour in the novel as well to contrast the more gruesome bits, but this is really where John Hornor Jacobs is in his element, with more blood and bone flying around than feeding time in a piranha tank.
Despite the male-dominated society, Jacobs does an excellent job of settling the score with Livia, the eldest of the Governor’s daughters, who keeps a carbine up her skirt and knows how to use it. Agrippina, the female stretcher caught and brought back to the boat, is also a powerful female presence, despite remaining almost silent. This brings a welcome balance to the book and shows Jacob’s strength in characterisation.
His website says that this is a fantasy series, so more may be to come, but even by itself The Incorruptibles is well worth a read if you are looking for something a bit more unusual.
John Hornor Jacobs’ website: www.johnhornorjacobs.com.
This The Incorruptibles book review was written by Cat Fitzpatrick
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