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And so I came to Buckkeep, sole child and bastard of a man I’d never know. Prince Verity became King-in-Waiting and Prince Regal moved up a notch in the line of succession. If all I had ever done was to be born and discovered, I would have left a mark across all the land for all time. I grew up fatherless and motherless in a court where all recognized me as a catalyst. And a catalyst I became.

Earlier in the week I mentioned I had attended a filming of ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. The topic of discussion was fantasy and Lev Grossman made the argument that the genre’s defining characteristic was big emotions. See this is something I have always had a problem with – fantasy writing does indeed feature expansive emotions (after all, the entire world is generally under threat from some dark lord or another), but the characters often do not reflect emotional depth.

Oh and another member of the panel, Jennifer Rowe recommended today’s book by Robin Hobb as an interesting entry point for readers looking for fantasy novels with genuine character development.

You know what? She was not wrong.

If this story was a fairy tale, it would start as follows. There once was a king so clever, his people knew him by the name of Shrewd. He had three sons. Chivalry, Verity and Regal – but only the two eldest sons had the same mother. By the time the third child was born of the new Queen, Desire was her name, the prophetic naming of the king’s children no longer worked. Regal was a cruel and over-ambitious princeling, envious of his siblings and eager to ascend to the throne. Then the day came when he discovered that the king-in-waiting Chivalry was not as chivalrous as his name after all and had fathered an illegitimate son on a commoner. Quickly his plot fell into place.

This is how the fable would be told. Hobb is far more interested in describing a world of real characters, real experiences, despite the fantastical setting.

Instead of the three princes vying for the kingship, the story is concerned primarily with Chivalry’s unlooked for heir. Dumped at the gates of a military post, he is brought to the capital of the Six Duchies, Buckkeep, shaming his father and forcing his abdication. The second son of King Shrewd, Verity, becomes the next in line to the throne and has a stable-hand raise the child. Known as ‘boy’, for as long as he can remember, Burrich as former man of Chivalry’s gives him the name of Fitz, another word for ‘bastard’. In his own plain-speaking manner he raises the boy to become useful at court, perhaps enough that people will forget that he in turn could one day succeed to the throne.

Fitz begins to develop an unusual affinity with animals, in particular dogs. He even comes to learn how to communicate with them, something which sends Burrich into a rage. Some at court would recognize such a talent as ‘the Wit’, which is said to transform men into beasts. He insists that Fitz hide his unusual nature, in order to protect himself from the duplicitous Royal.

All this court intrigue threatens to distract the leaders of the Six Duchies just when the cruel invaders from the Outislands, known as the Red-Ship Raiders, whose victims are left bestial and violent shadows of their former selves. The entire kingdom is on the brink of collapse and all the while young Fitz finds himself at the centre of a deadly race to the throne.

Jennifer Rowe was dead on the money. This book draws you in with incisive character detail, allows the reader to get the learn the world Fitz finds himself in along with him and even opens each chapter with a short historical note that adds to the worldbuilding. I also love how unobtrusive Hobb’s use of magic is. It is a subtly handled and left largely undefined until the latter half of the novel.

This is not your typical swords and sorcery fantasy tale. It is almost like a hybrid of Dune and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, more concerned with political intrigue. For that I love it and eagerly look forward to the rest of the series.

Strong characters, an involving plot and an innovative use of fantasy tropes.

I am very happy to be writing this review – one that has been six years in the offing. Jodorowsky’s Metabarons saga, published by Les Humanoïdes Associés (English language site), is a triumph of mind-bending science fiction. Juan Gimenez’s incredibly detailed galactic vistas and grotesque villains adds just the right amount of grandeur to an epic tale of one family’s history, descended from the sole survivor of the Castaka tribe. The story of how this comic book came to be written is almost as fascinating as the tale itself, one that began long before the character known as The Metabaron first appeared in a previous Jodorowsky book, called L’Incal.

Several years ago DC Comics, in partnership with Les Humanoïdes, began publishing English language editions of the many French titles. This was how I first discovered the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is also an artist and film director (his Tarot-inspired Western El Topo .famously earned him the patronage of John Lennon). Unfortunately the bean counters at DC decided the translated reprints were not profitable enough and discontinued the line. Only now has Humanoids resurfaced as a English language publisher, with the final volume of The Metabarons series – Aghora & The Last Metabaron – released last month. Over the years I became so desperate I made trips to Brussels to pick up original copies of the various Jodoverse titles (including the Incal and Technopriests). Now thanks to the rejuvenated Humanoids imprint I can share the entire run with my English speaking friends. For more information on Jodorowsky’s career, have a gander at Tom Lennon’s excellent overview of his work.

The Metabaron is a title given to the sole survivor of the Castaka tribe, who were wiped out due to a planetary invasion by the Imperial Army. The title is handed down from father to son, following strict rituals designed to prove the worthiness of the child to becoming a Metabaron. Firstly the child is mutilated in some fashion by their parent. Then after years of training, the two duel, with the surviving victor winning the honour of becoming the Metabaron. This is to ensure that the Castaka family will forever be known as the most dangerous and ruthless warriors in the galaxy, called upon by the Galactic Empire itself in times of need (and at great cost to its citizens).

The two dominant themes of the series are body fetishism, particularly with regard to cybernetics and prosthetic limbs and a satirical undercurrent of Freudian theories of sexuality. Almost every Jodorowsky work makes reference to the granddaddy of psychoanalysis’ theory of the Oedipus complex. Seeing as each volume of The Metabarons series contains an inversion of the trope – the son must kill the father – each Metabaron is bound by competing impulses, be the greatest warrior in the galaxy, while also raising and training their nemesis.

This is also the story of two robots, Tonto and Lothar, who serve the nameless last Metabaron. Throughout the series Tonto has served as narrator to the increasingly excitable Lothar. He also insists on abusing and humiliating his faithful audience, until events take a startling turn in the last book. Without giving anything away, Jodorowsky has not merely introduced a novel framing device to poke fun at the ever-present C-3P0 and R2D2 from the Star Wars series. The question of who and what Tonto and Lothar are becomes the central mystery of the entire saga.

There is a fascinating documentary called La constellation Jodorowsky where the mercurial creator discusses his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the silver screen (I love his description of it as a ‘wonderful failure’). There is more information on the unrealized cinema adaptation here. I find myself agreeing with Jodorowsky that his work on the film should not be considered a failure, as it gave us two great things. Firstly as a member of Jodorowsky’s Paris-based crew of creative types, it lead to Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. Furthermore another colleague of O’Bannon’s on Dune was H.R. Giger, the man who would design the Freudian nightmare that was the titular xenomorph. Secondly, Jodorowsky himself left the production with a universe of unrealized ideas, which in collaboration with Moebius led to L’Incal and later the Metabarons series. So hardly a failure all things considered.

I would urge all science fiction fans to hunt this series down. Packed with mad ideas and incredible visuals, it is a classic.

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