‘I ain’t gettin’ on no Giant Eagle, fool!’ (Professor T.)
Okay, obviously that wasn’t a quote from Breed. I wrote it with a big damn grin on my face though, because it sums up for me the joy of this kind of book. There’s no art-house pretension, no overblown drama; just a pack of misfits with a job to do. People point to Tolkien as the start of modern Fantasy but the pulp writings of Robert E Howard, Fritz Lieber and so on were arguably more instrumental in bringing readers in to the genre. It comes down to accessibility: pumping stories out through relatively cheap magazines, keeping them short and focused, and filling them with ‘low fantasy’ characters to whom people could relate -fighters, thieves, and mercenaries rather than the kings and noblemen of the High Fantasy door-stoppers. Most relished in recent years have been the ‘grimdark’ tales of Joe Abercrombie and his ilk, but I’m very glad to say that there also seems to be a New Pulp movement developing in their wake. Simpler stories with a lighter touch, chock full of exuberance. Like the sound?
Well, if you want a book – if no one-else can help – and if you can find it – maybe you should read… Breed.
Breed is a fast paced, free-flowing romp through the underbelly of an as-yet-unnamed fantastical world. The protagonist is part human, part war-spawn and a rogue of the highest water. Or should we say lowest? There are bad days and then there are really bad days. Breed’s skipped both and gone straight for the-worst-days-of-her-life: chased by a dragon, tricked by a demon, betrayed by her bloodkin – and that was before the damned priest enslaved her. The clock is ticking towards her doom but first she has an ancient weapon to find, a secret history to uncover and a score or two to settle. This book is written in the first person – which is usually a big turn off for me – but Davies makes it work to her advantage. There’s something of the tavern tale in the conversational tone and informal language which fits the story – and the character – to a tee. What is most unusual is the author’s refusal to specify her protagonist’s gender, going so far as to give the character a knowingly reductive (and self-invented) name: Breed. I’ll dip into why this is such a shrewd move in a bit. For now I’ll just explain that I’m using female pronouns here because I heard Karen read some of it out loud last year and her voice just became Breed’s for me. (Watch the video at the end to get the gist.)
There are moments – a lot of moments, actually – where I laughed out loud reading this book. There’s an outrageous cheekiness to the narration which carries you along in such a way that, while you care, you never really fear for the characters safety. Breed is an anti-hero in the semi-Indiana Jones mould: everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and her reactions to these reversals are at least as entertaining as the thrills and spills themselves. She also has a byline in hilarious commentary; undercutting the pompous, the earnest and the deadly with equal aplomb. It’s delicate work but, between all this, Davies manages to lace a surprising amount of world-building into her tale. Third person perspectives make allowance for exposition, permitting landscapes and histories to unfold, but first person narratives like this one only have room for the here and now. Nevertheless, we infer some key moments of this world’s past, religions, economic strata, taboos and political machinations, among others. I really have to take my hat off to her. Even the name Breed tells us several things at once: the wisdom of a rogue hiding their true name, the potential power of that name in a world of magic, the readiness of everyone to treat non-human as sub-human, and so on and so forth.
There’s a certain unreliability to a narrator who plays up the more dramatic and entertaining aspects while brushing over messier and more complex details. In a lesser writer this might come across as a shallowness of thought but there are enough hints of a deeper inner life and history to give me confidence in the unspoken ‘real’ story behind the bravado. Breed isn’t a perfect book, true, but it’s a damned fun read. It could stand on its own, more of less, but the ending felt a little rushed to me. I’m not sure if this was due to a tight deadline, a late decision to extend it into a series, or simply a stylistic choice. After all, who says big dramatic events have to be drawn out affairs? Perhaps it is more in keeping with the pulpy vibe to simply finish the adventure with the immediate threat vanquished. Let the boring people sort out the aftermath. Who knows? Anyway, I certainly hope there is a sequel because I want to dive into this world, the mind of Breed, and the creatively filthy language of K.T. Davies again and again. Right, I’m shutting up now. Here’s my rating, then I recommend watching the YouTube link I’ve attached. You’ll get to hear Karen tell you about the book in her own words and, perhaps, get a better sense of her quirky humour. After that, go buy the book. It’s deep-fried gold.
GS Blogger: Dion Winton-Polak
GS Rating: 4.5/5
Want to get hold of some more New Pulp? Snag a copy of Jen Williams‘ Copper Cat series, beginning with The Copper Promise (which I’m upping to 4/5, having reread it recently.) Got any more recommendations? Post them in the comments section below.