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Book Review (Novella): The Vault Of Deeds by James Barclay

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There's nothing quite like a hero, is there? Those great defenders of virtue, steely-eyed in battle, firm of sinew, and pure of heart, they've strode through the world's literature before we even had writing. Whether it was Homer spinning his tales around the fireside for his fellow Greeks or Valmiki reciting verse after verse in praise of Rama for future generations of Indians to recite hasn't mattered. Heroes, the epitomes of all that we hold to be virtuous, puff up our vision of ourselves as a people. By the same token they are useful for propagating a specific way of being and establishing and enforcing the character traits that a society considers attractive.

However, where would the hero be without his scribe? Would we have even heard of Achilles and his buddies' attempt to take Troy if it weren't for Homer? When the Vikings used to set out upon their raids into foreign waters they were always accompanied by at least one poet or bard who could recreate the heroic deeds carried out by his countrymen as they raped, pillaged, and looted their way through coastal Europe and the British Isles. After all, what was the good of performing deeds of great valour if they weren't going to be properly appreciated? Yet haven't you ever wondered about the relationship between scribe and hero? There's something almost symbiotic about it, as they each depend upon the other for ensuring their places in the annals of history and the pages of literature.

Vault Of Deeds.jpgIt's this relationship that is deconstructed in The Vault Of Deeds, a new novella by British author James Barclay, just released by the British independent small press PS Publishing. Barclay first made a name for himself through the publication of the six-part series, soon to be seven, covering the exploits of the heroic mercenary company known as The Raven. While he never used the flowery prose of the romantic writers from the late 19th centuries, and his heroes were not necessarily men and women a good son or daughter would take home to meet his or her parents, the member of the Raven did possess heroic characteristics. Brave, resourceful, and somewhat noble — if not always completely pure of heart and innocent of evil influence — at least their intentions were always for the best as they fought both human and inhuman enemies in defence of their homeland and what they believed to be justice.

So it's only fitting that Barclay has written this farcical satire on the connection between the hero and his scribe. Something is going terribly wrong in the blessed kingdom of Goedterre. One after another, all the great heroes are being defeated in battle by the forces of evil. Helpless scribes are forced to sit idly by while, instead of recording their hero's eloquent words as they vanquish another demon from the pits of hell to the abyss, they watch them cut down in mid-sentence. A feeling of unease and disquiet has come over the now unemployed scribes of the best Hero (H.E.R.O. = Hideous Evil Routinely Overcome) school in all the land. Fully 47 heroes have suffered consecutive defeats, the worst record since the Dark Ages. 

But of all the currently unemployed scribes only Grincheux is willing to risk his flesh to find out why the best of best are dropping like flies on the fields of battle and the forces of evil are marching virtually unopposed. Unfortunately, there is a reason his fellow scribes are hesitant about even beginning to formulate plans for looking into the reason behind all the recent defeats. Any thought that a scribe has that can be construed as pertaining to heroic deeds or adventures is recorded in draft form in the Vault of Deeds in preparation to the scribe adding the finishing touches upon the completion of a campaign. Although scribes are usually considered sacrosanct and are never harmed on the field of battle, accidents have been known to happen. So a process that allows a rough draft that could in theory be finished off by any other scribe was deemed an essential safeguard.

While those in training for heroism are learning essentials like proper heroic utterance and how to swing battle axes, scribes are taught how to formulate their thoughts to ensure posterity gets the best possible read. As part of that process, whenever they begin to think in terms of plot and action, their book in the Vault of Deeds immediately begins to render a draft form for the potential adventure. With the Vault inexplicably off limits to the scribes all of a sudden, there is the real threat that if there is something foul in the state of Goedterre, those behind it can conveniently keep an eye on any nosey scribe and his writings. 

James Barclay.jpgAlready one of their number's books had been brutally closed by his untimely demise, and everyone else is of the firm mind that heroism is best left to those who went to school to become heroes. The trouble is that the recent crop of students at the hero school just aren't what anybody under most circumstances would ever consider hero material. So it comes down to Grincheux and his newly assigned hero(ine), Cassandra the Swiftblade, to take the afternoon before committing to the field of battle to nose around the school to see if they can uncover what's gone wrong. What they discover is even more base a betrayal than either could have believed possible. In the catacombs beneath the school a pit has appeared in which the forces of evil are being taught the secrets of Heroism and how to defeat the champions of good in battle.

While I've always enjoyed Barclay's work prior to this, nothing in any of his earlier works had indicated he had such a flair for the ridiculous. He has done a brilliant job of standing the whole hero genre on its head using elements of farce and satire to make his point. While some of the humour is as broad as a barn door – the extravagant language has to be seen and read to be believed, at other times he hones his wit to a point that cuts deeper than any weapons wielded by fiend and hero alike. Conventions are manipulated as easily as a child's building blocks, revealing just how flimsy the whole notion of a hero really is. For what is a hero, anyway, if not a construct of the writer? And in this world the heroes are trained to spout the words that heroes always declaim so that their scribes can record it as deathless prose.

It is those very conventions that the minions of evil are able to exploit to ensure the speedy dispatch of the forces of good. In their classes the evil ones are taught that heroes talk too much, and that just before they deliver a killing blow they will always, without exception, deliver a speech describing their great victory so the scribe can record it. By shaming defeat and awaiting their moment the villains are bisecting and dissecting heroes during what should be their moment of triumph – cutting their speeches short by abbreviating their stature.

Unlike other writers who might have tried to stretch the joke too thin by writing a full length novel, Barclay has wisely chosen to stick with a novella, and because of that The Vault Of Deeds never becomes tiresome or just silly. (Although there are wonderful moments of rampant silliness.) For anybody who has ever struggled through the turgid writings of the 19th century Romantics, or the florid prose of lesser sword and sorcery writers, this will be a balm for any wounds they might have left upon your literary soul. In the past Barclay has proven his mastery of both sword and sorcery and epic fantasy, but now he can add comedy to his list of achievements as a writer. After reading Vault Of Deeds you'll never look upon heroic fantasy in quite the same way again.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.