The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath by Ian Green
Head of Zeus, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Rima Devereaux
The Prologue to this Secondary World fantasy introduces a lot of threatening magic elements – the rotstorm, the carnivorous rotvine, rust-folk, a rottroll, the crow-men (who were once human but have been corrupted by the rotstorm), goblins and a dead god-wolf called Lothal. These will become significant later in the book. It also introduces us to two main characters: Floré, who fights with weapons, and Janos, who fights with magic, calling on the skein, the pattern that links all things. This establishes fighting as a key theme of the book, as evidenced by the title, and highlights key parts of the magic in the world Green has created.
At the time the book opens, Anshuka the great mother has overcome the slavers of the Ferron Empire and defeated the god-wolf Lothal. Floré, the central character, is in the Stormguard, which protects the land from the beasts of Ferron beyond the Stormwall. We see Floré with her husband Janos and daughter Marta, showing a necessary tender side that counterbalances the emphasis on fighting. The device of telling Marta a story not only teaches us important history but also conveys love. The human interest is part of the plot throughout, another strength of the book. There is a hierarchy of people equipped to call on the skein: skein-mages, whitestaffs, shamans. There is also Floré’s friend Benazir, and the Stormguard cadets Petron, Cuss and Yselda, from whose point of view some of the chapters are narrated. We learn that Floré has no fear, but – and this is key – she does fear the strange orbs that have been seen in the sky at the time the story opens. The narrative recounts the abduction of Petron and Marta and the chaos and death caused by the orbs.
The book displays the author’s knowledge of stock Secondary World fantasy topoi: for example, the Highmothers are associated with the forest and the environment, whereas the enemy (Ferron’s orbs) are associated with higher technology. There is also the theme of immortality: Tullen One-Eye is judged by a goddess figure (Anshuka) and condemned not to die, and there is a broken sword with runes of power. Goblins can be spawned from seeds in a blight, recalling the corrupt landscape of the Blight in Robert Jordan’s famous series, the Wheel of Time. The enemy calls Janos a skein-wreck, which is a very powerful skein-mage. This is a surprise to the reader, who so far only knows him as a poet and Floré’s husband (although the Prologue does show him drawing on the skein). This is a good use of the fantasy theme of the ordinary as extraordinary. Another idea is the presence of non-human races such as the Tullioch. A motif that recurs in fantasy is that of magic undergoing a change – the orbs change the skein so that there is no pattern, only chaos. This slightly recalls the corruption of the One Power in the Wheel of Time. Finally, the world seems to be basically medieval, which is another powerful trend.
The book also reflects trends in fantasy writing over more recent years. There is a blurring of the traditional good/evil dichotomy, and authority, both religious and political, is often a grey area. Female figures are important, and not only in the depiction of the lead character Floré. The Highmother Ashbringer has to seek the truth of the orbs across the Wind Sea, among the Tullioch. The idea that the truth of some magic phenomenon needs to be sought in another culture has become a motif of recent fantasy, for example, in Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. Modern writers of fantasy need to become ever more inventive with regard to the magic in the worlds they create, and here, the orbs show an original use of magic: they make everything go silent.
But The Gauntlet and the Fist Beneath has elements that distinguish it from similar works and make it stand out. The places names have a Scottish flavour (reflecting the author’s Scottish roots), the characters sometimes use Scottish words and turns of phrase, and the landscapes are clearly influenced by the Scottish Highlands. There is a good map and excellent, vivid world-building. The use of flashbacks is particularly effective and helps characterization and world-building. There is good detail on languages. There is excellent back history and a sense of the passing of time and of heroes being forgotten. Technology is described appropriately, for example, the way a drawbridge works. There is a memorable description of goblins and trollspawn emerging from the ground after the rotstorm. This is a gripping story with cinematic detail.
The deep themes Green is concerned about also set his book apart. These are responsibility for others, behaving in a crisis, and the human interest – the loss of friends and family members. There is a great deal of well-described fighting in the book, a lot of detail on different weapons and fighting techniques, and training and how people with various levels of experience cope. The emphasis on fighting is refreshing since so many Secondary World fantasies don’t show the full horror and brutality of what life must be like in them. The title, ‘the gauntlet and the fist beneath’, is mentioned occasionally and seems to refer to the distinction between who we are and our roles, as well as pinpointing the importance of fighting. The gauntlet is what is necessary to protect you from the burning ground left by the rotstorm, as well as the tool that helps you fight back. Green has created a world where our ability to fight is key to survival, and the practical implications of this emerge from every page.