By Tim Clare
I got this book as a token of support for the author, whose wonderful writing podcast, Death Of 1000 Cuts, I’ve been listening to daily for a month now. I knew it’d be good. In his podcast, Tim explores pretty much every conceivable aspect of the writing craft from his own unique perspective. The episodes where he analyzes excerpts submitted by listeners offer an even deeper insight into what he considers good writing. And obviously I approve of his standards or I wouldn’t be listening to his show. THE HONOURS did not disappoint — but despite the positive prejudice, I ended up with mixed feelings about it.
The story is about Delphine, a girl of thirteen, who struggles to come to terms with her father’s soul-sickness. Seeking treatment for his condition, her family takes residence in Alderberen Hall, an extensive estate in East England with a mysterious history. Delphine discovers a network of secret passages and underground tunnels criss-crossing the estate. This allows her to overhear private conversations and witness strange events which lead her to believe that some of the other residents are plotting treason, and intend to set the stage for an invasion. But it turns out that the invaders aren’t Germans or Russians: they’re monsters from another world.
Delphine is a strong, eminently memorable character. She’s intelligent, courageous and capable, full of energy and imagination. All her actions, even in extreme and surreal circumstances, are natural and well-motivated and her “insolence and enterprise” are indeed impressive, but never unbelievable. All the other characters, including Delphine’s mother and father, and the aged gamekeeper, Mr Garforth, who’s her only friend, are minor. Which isn’t to say they’re flat. Quite to the contrary: the occasional glimpses into their histories, thoughts and feelings hint at fully developed imagined humans who we simply can’t hope to understand because we’re limited almost exclusively to Delphine’s POV. Alderberen Hall is a character of its own. It’s a meticulously thought-out, masterfully crafted setting that was just a joy to explore together with Delphine.
So that’s all good. The thing that gives me pause is the fantastic element. It only kicks in fully in the last third of the book. And by that time, I didn’t need it, and I didn’t want it.
THE HONOURS is really like two books that share the same stage and characters, but are otherwise completely different and unrelated. The first one is a character piece. I suppose that genre-wise, it would be pure literary fiction. It’s slow-paced, detailed, it takes its time to explore behaviors, emotions and motivations and it does so brilliantly. It’s entirely devoid of anything fantastic. Sure, the prologue makes mention of monsters (but at that point we can’t be sure Delphine is a reliable narrator, so it’s not the most solid hint), and somewhere near the half-mark there’s an interlude from another POV that introduces fantastic elements explicitly (but it’s so out of place and disconnected from Delphine’s story that it’s utterly ignorable and forgettable). I kept hoping, against reason and preexisting knowledge, that the book will turn out to be not fantastic at all, because it was just so good the way it was.
Alas, the fantasy eventually asserts itself and basically takes over. This ‘other’ part of the book is a tale about a single event. It’s not even a tale about a setting, a fantasy world, or a concept. Just about what happens, without going into the details of how or why. Genre-wise it would be a… dark fantasy action-adventure?
The transition from one part to the other is shockingly abrupt. Just prior to the introduction of fantasy, there’s a scene where Delphine wakes up with her hands and feet bound, and toils to free herself before her captors realize she’s awake, and it’s hands-down one of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever read. My heart thumped and I literally couldn’t put the book down. It doesn’t get any better than that! Directly after this, she witnesses a fleet of flying monsters en route to the Hall — and neither that, nor anything that came after, not even the moments when the lives of Delphine and her loved ones were at stake, came even close to it in terms of emotional investment. The story I wanted to read ended there, and the one that followed, I had no interest in.
Of course I read it anyway. The second part isn’t by any means awful, just a far cry from the the first. The pace becomes frenetic, and the characterization of the fantasy setting suffers for it. The nominal elements of it — the three kinds of fantastic creatures, the channel leading to another world, and the titular honours, are, frankly, quite pedestrian. It’s Alice goes down the rabbit hole and instead of Wonderland, finds rot, mud and worms. Nothing about the fantasy setting struck me as especially interesting, original and worthwhile. Perhaps because the setting was barely sketched. Insistent on observing the limitations of Delphine’s POV and on keeping up the break-neck pace, Tim doesn’t provide enough information to ground the reader into his fantasy world. We only get to glance at random bits and pieces of it, with practically no understanding, and what we’re shown isn’t particularly attractive or thought-provoking. Some things are explained near the end, in not-quite an info-dump. Others are blatantly waved off as a hook for the sequel.
The only two things that got my attention and tickled my curiosity in the second part are: the connection and power dynamic between Stokeham and Cox; and the relationship between Gideon (Delphine’s father) and Arthur. At one point, Gideon swears that he never told anyone some secret about Arthur. Of course, I read that like a hint at more-than-friendship, because that’s my thing. But later I started suspecting it’s actually a hint that Arthur is still around, which is infinitely less interesting. I bet it was Arthur to bestow the honours on Gideon. That’s… about the only answer I’ll be looking for in the sequel.
The sequel, THE ICE HOUSE, has been announced recently and it will appear next year. I already know that I’ll be reading it despite my reservations about THE HONOURS. Even if THE HONOURS turned out to be rather shit — and it’s not: two thirds of it are amazing, and everything I expected it to be — I’d still get and read the sequel because I like Tim’s podcast, and from what I learned about him through listening to it, I like Tim too. THE ICE HOUSE ought to be better in several aspects: it must pick up where THE HONOURS left, fantasy-wise, so it shouldn’t suffer from the strange crisis of identity that rubbed me the wrong way here. Perhaps Tim’s imaginary world will turn out the be a place of wonder after all once it’s properly introduced. His writing, the word-craft, is a pleasure to read and study in its own right. And storytelling skills improve with time and experience.
Writing this review was difficult. I didn’t feel like going full-out critical, and yet I couldn’t avoid complaining. To make a clean exit, I’ll say that I most definitely don’t regret getting this book or spending time with it. With a cautionary note on genre-ambiguity, I’d recommend it to anyone with a taste for fine literature.