There are many things to love about The Relic Guild. First and foremost, it neatly delivers the reader into a unique world – rare in the saturated fantasy genre – that’s peopled with a great cast of characters and a conflict spanning decades. This conflict has shades of the Biblical: the Satan-like Spiral – a being of higher magic – defies his Mother, the Timewatcher, in order to pursue his own ends. Some of his fellow Thaumaturgists sympathise and join him, obliterating their Thaumaturgic tattoos from their foreheads in refutation of their Mother and Her laws. It’s a conflict that works because it’s ancient and understandable, and it makes for an excellent story.
The Timewatcher is a suitably ineffable figure, and time/dimensions are an intrinsic part of Cox’s idea. From this perspective, it’s almost wrong to envision the story’s two narrative arcs as separate, since the present day narrative is a continuation of the original. Nevertheless, the book is divided equally between the two.
In the present-day, the people of Labrys Town are virtual prisoners, contained by unscalable walls that protect them from the dangers of the Great Labyrinth beyond. Once upon a time, portals connected Labrys Town to myriad Aelfirian Houses, but the war with Spiral necessitated their closure, trapping the entire race of humans in one place.
I loved the idea of the Aelfirian Houses. Each ‘House’ is an entire realm with wonderful names like The Icicle Forest and Web of Rock. All of these realms – and the great Labyrinth itself – are contained within a kind of nebula called The Nothing of Far and Deep. Cox has created a vast universe, which makes Labrys Town and its high walls seem smaller by contrast. This claustrophobic awareness is lodged somewhere in each character’s psyche and is a major influence on their development.
The past narrative is situated forty years before the present and recounts the story of the Relic Guild’s fight against Fabian Moor and his fellow Genii. Since the reader is told from page one that Fabian Moor was defeated, Cox’s decision to relive history could be seen as risky – if we know the ending, doesn’t that diffuse tension? Not so. I think Cox is allowing us to see only a corner of his story’s intricately-plotted page. He doesn’t dedicate half his book to recounting past events simply because those events make for a good story. They do indeed make for a good story, but I suspect that they serve a much larger purpose yet to be revealed.
In an interview published on Civilian Reader Cox mentioned that neither narrative could structurally stand alone and remain successful – a point with which I agree. There’s no denying the symbiosis that occurs between the two timeframes and sets of characters. A few overlap of course – notably Samuel, Van Bam, Hamir and Marney – and I found the parallels that this overlap created slightly disorientating. The young Marney began to merge in my head with Clara and I sometimes felt the same way about the older and younger Van Bam and Samuel. I’m undecided as to whether this sense of character blurring works with or against the flow of the narrative. We certainly don’t know everything about Clara, but we do know she is somehow linked with Marney, which leads me to wonder whether the overlapping of these two characters is deliberate.
On the whole, Cox’s characters are well-realised individuals, each with a story to tell. At the top of my list are Marney, Samuel and Fabian Moor. Marney is such a great character. Her magic is empathy, which allows her to manipulate human emotions. By the end of the book, I felt as if we’d truly met and Cox has me wholly invested in her fate. Samuel is a bounty hunter whose magic and marksmanship skills make him an excellent assassin. Samuel has the taciturn and practical nature of a true mercenary and his cold-blooded attitude serves the Relic Guild well. Near the end of the book, we’re treated to a glimpse of Sam’s inner life. Riddled with bitterness and hurt, it raises some pertinent questions about his pre-Relic Guild years, which I hope Cox will explore in subsequent stories. Comparatively, we don’t see much of Moor, but I appreciated his wry, calculating nature and couldn’t help but be intrigued by his motives. Hamir – the Relic Guild’s necromancer – is another character who has me fascinated and I am convinced he is something more than he seems.
My one real niggle when it comes to character is Clara, who is billed as the protagonist. She’s supposed to be a whore – and a good one at that – but I couldn’t quite make myself believe it. I didn’t feel that the way she behaved around her fellow characters – almost exclusively men – tallied with someone who’d made a living from her body since the age of fourteen. Even in the privacy of her own head, she doesn’t think about her profession, or seem especially affected by it. One could argue that this absence of consideration is a form of repression, but I remain unconvinced. You could swap out prostitution for factory work and it wouldn’t make a difference to the character. Although I can only go on my own feelings as a woman, Clara simply didn’t come across as a whore. And therefore when any character referred to her as ‘the whore’, it rang falsely.
Perhaps it’s also the fact that Clara has so little personality compared to Cox’s other characters. I found it genuinely difficult to warm to her – chiefly because there wasn’t much to latch onto. As the story continued, she did finally seem to wake up and respond in a more recognisable way to her surroundings, but she still remains my least favourite character. I hope I’m not being too harsh on poor Clara, and I sincerely hope my opinion doesn’t dissuade you from reading the book. Although the blurb names Clara as the protagonist, she doesn’t have much more page time than Marney, Sam and the other members of the Relic Guild.
Cox’s morals are fairly clear cut – this is not grimdark, folks – and that is more than fine with me. The bad guys (Spiral’s Genii) exhibit a chill disregard for anything that stands in their way, and the good guys (the titular Relic Guild) are fairly decent human beings, though – as you might expect – their modus operandi isn’t entirely ethical. They use whatever talents they have to keep the people of Labrys Town safe and these talents vary widely.
Magical abilities possessed by humans range from illusion and empathy to heightened physical senses. Thaumaturgy – the energy that denotes a being of higher magic – is less easy to classify. It powers Labrys Town like electricity, but only the Thaumaturgists themselves can wield it in the way of sorcerers. They are distant, powerful figures who dwell beyond the realm of humans and whose minds are open to the secrets of the universe.
The combination of the two makes for a highly successful magic system that doesn’t require a lot of explanation and complements the setting beautifully. Caught halfway between technology and medievalism, Labrys Town has a certain steampunkish air. It’s full of trams and creepy Big Brother-like eyes that spy on the populace. And the mysterious Nightshade – the home of the Resident and the Relic Guild – is a sentient maze of a building with a personality all its own.
Taking the book as a whole, I found the dual narrative structure clever and effective, and appreciated the way Cox keeps his world’s history alive and relevant to current events. My one disappointment in this regard was the novel’s lack of closure. In the interview quoted above, Cox talks of his aim to create one story seamlessly split into three books. As a reader, I like novels to have some sort of conclusion even if they are part of a series. This is obviously a personal opinion and does rather fly in the face of Cox’s purpose. However, I was rather surprised that The Relic Guild didn’t include the battle with Fabian Moor – a battle that would have provided my desired closure. The reader anticipates this battle from the very first page, and I can only conclude that Cox has some other plan up his sleeve. As it is, the book ends between one chapter and the next. While that ensures a seamless transition, the downside for the reader is the wait between books –an interval that may water down the effect.
I had the pleasure to read a very clean proof copy and I enjoyed Cox’s easy prose immensely. Chunks of info-dumping are rare and where they do occur, they are done succinctly with a view to explaining a subsequent development in character or plot. Despite its few flaws, The Relic Guild is a formidable debut from an author with huge potential, and I will be one of the first clamouring for a copy of the sequel.
The Relic Guild is published 18th September. Thanks to Gollancz for this proof.