by G. P. Taylor 288 pages, Putnam
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I’m a huge fan of fantasy, particularly fantasy that tries to be a little bit different. All too often, writers in the genre stick to the tried and tested formula of wizards and goblins; enchanted swords and fearsome dragons. Unfortunately, it is the prevalence of such books that serves to narrow the scope of the genre. Publishers are only interested in what sells. If they have a success with Thrabnir and the Quest for the Golden Grape of Garangol then they’ll fix their beady little eyes on a whole series of Thrabnir novels and the inevitable imitators.
This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, it’s just that I’d rather delve into something more original, something that pushes the genre a little further into the mainstream. My favourite fantasy novel of recent years has to be Susanna Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell, a book whose real magic lay in the fact that it tricked many so-called “highbrow” readers into enjoying a tale of duelling wizards in the nineteenth century. If you haven’t yet read Clarke’s mighty tome, stop reading this review right now and go out and buy yourself a copy. You can thank me later.
At first glance, Wormwood appears to share the same ambitions as the aforementioned masterpiece. It’s setting of London in the eighteenth century seems rooted in the real world and the mix of supernatural fantasy with such a rich historical backdrop helped to secure my purchase of it. Like many books, this one adorned my shelves for some time (the best part of a year) before I finally got round to reading it. I wanted so much to enjoy this book – it promised everything that I look for in a fantasy novel. Much to my disappointment, rather than a sense of wonder and enjoyment, all I was left with at the end of this novel was a rather bitter taste in my mouth.
Let’s start with the positives – the book is undoubtedly well written. Taylor creates a marvellously grimy, earthy picture of London. He doesn’t skimp on the details and his lavish descriptions help to immerse the reader in the setting. The characters are well drawn out, for the most part. There are some great names on display too (Dagda Sarapuk being a personal favourite of mine). The author keeps the reader guessing as to the characters’ motivations right up to the great revelations of the final few chapters. All good so far you might say, what could possibly be wrong?
Well, my first criticism is a minor one, based on personal preferences more than anything else. There are a lot of supernatural and magical elements in the novel. A lot. Some may lap up this kind of fantasy but for me, Taylor’s use of the fantastic – nay, his reliance on it to drive the plot along – wears thin very quickly. The reader becomes so accustomed to fantastical creatures and dazzling spells that the climactic battle, so full of such spectacle, seems strangely flaccid and leaves one feeling somewhat cheated. This, as I have already mentioned, is my own personal opinion. I’m sure that there are many readers out there who might revel in such overblown high fantasy. Once again, I will direct those readers to Susanna Clarke’s truly excellent Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell should they wish to experience some great magical goings-on set against a believable historic background. Unlike Wormwood, Clarke’s novel gradually unfolds as opposed to quickly unravelling and proves a far more satisfying experience.
Regardless of how well Wormwood is written, my main criticism of the book is of such magnitude that I cannot in good faith recommend it to anyone. The opening premise (a giant comet hurtles towards earth and can only be stopped by the Cabalist Doctor Sabian Blake) is intriguing but one soon becomes uncomfortably aware of being preached at. A little research on Wikipedia soon explained everything. G.P. Taylor, you see, used to be a Reverend and began writing fantasy in response to the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter novels and His Dark Materials. Believing that Pullman, Rowling and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were leading the youth of today to develop an unhealthy interest in the occult, Taylor wrote his own series of fantasy novels based on his own Church of England beliefs. Fair enough, after the rampant atheism of Philip Pullman a response from a writer of faith was inevitable. Approaching a fantasy novel with a Christian bias is nothing new, after all CS Lewis’ Narnia series is steeped in Biblical allegory and none the worse for it. However, the real problem I have with this book is its inherent hypocrisy.
From what I can gather, Taylor has been less than impressed with the liberalisation of the Church of England and his faith manifests itself within the novel with an aggressiveness and lack of forgiveness which seems distinctly Old Testament. Taylor’s own fear of fiction corrupting the young is reflected by Nemorensis, a wicked book that warps the minds of those who read it. The ham-fisted symbolism goes further with a bookshop haunted by the spirits of children robbed of their innocence. The novel’s portrayal of witchcraft and magic is almost entirely negative. Dabbling with such forces, Taylor believes, is a one-way ticket to damnation. Sabian Blake’s experimentation with science and the Cabala (read Kabbalah) steers him away from his spiritual beliefs and it is this that leads him to become vulnerable to the dark powers of the book.
The real heroes of the novel are the angels. Harp-playing celestial hippies they are not. Taylor’s angels may have wings but that’s as far as the similarities go. They’re sombre, brooding killing machines who, when not spouting transparent attacks on the battle between science and religion in the real world, commit some of the novel’s most shocking acts of violence. It is this aspect of the book which I found the most distasteful. Taylor set out to entertain youngsters attracted to the occult and to warn them of its “dangers”. I’m no great fan of J.K. Rowling’s writing but I fail to see how they could be harmful to the inquisitive minds of children and young adults. There are a number of acts of violence within Wormwood which far surpass those in the Harry Potter books. To name but a few, the novel features attempted rape, grave-robbing, fingernails being pulled out, exploding dogs, people crushed beneath the feet of a stampeding mob, kidnap and torture. In one chapter, an angel fists an explosive crystal into a demon’s “stink-hole”. Don’t get me wrong, violence in fiction doesn’t shock or repel me in any way. What upsets me about it is the way in which Taylor has labelled the work of others as harmful but then comes out with this kind of stuff.
Taylor has assumed a holier-than-thou attitude in his approach to writing whilst simultaneously creating a piece of fiction that is the antithesis of Christian beliefs. In my eyes, that is hypocrisy of the highest order. Fantasy is all about escapism and the reason this book fails as a fantasy novel is that it is constrained by a rigid, unforgiving religious doctrine which is, unfortunately, all too real.
Hereward L.M. Proops