Strange Horizons, November 19, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft
It’s been a strong month at Strange Horizons, and this week’s offering, Alec Austin’s nicely-titled “The Hateful Brilliance of His Eyes” doesn’t let down the side. Although I have mixed feelings about this story, they’re mostly positive.
Pseudo-academic text bookends the tale, marking it as a fragment from an ancient manuscript. The story contained in the manuscript is set in a China of magic and ornithopters, dragons and cloud-walking shoes, royalty and wisecracking adventurers. It’s mythological steampunk, great fun to read – in precisely the way ancient manuscripts generally are not. Even The Iliad, with its brawling deities and heated insults, can’t be said to have a light-hearted touch. There’s something, too, about the self-conscious banter between the main characters Liao Jun and Yan Ming more reminiscent of a buddy cop show or a modern bromance. Neither of which forms are automatically bad: the dialogue and descriptions all work in this story – if you forget about the introductory text.
The story itself concerns dragon-hunting from flying airships, and felt almost like a riff on Moby Dick. Liao Jun is exiled until he slays the dragon that killed his prince, and his friend Yan Ming, another exile, helps out. The interactions between the characters are enjoyable, if a little bit too much along “lovable rogue” lines (do both characters need to be exiles?). But at the same time there’s a ruthlessness about the story I found – no doubt quite ethnocentrically – hard to take. Hunting parties slaughter exotic animals; the dragon hunters massacre grazing animals for target practice. These are probably quite proper touches towards establishing a realistic sense of courtly life in antiquity, but they made me want to see all the characters wiped out in a natural disaster.
The battle with the dragon, itself, is a one-sided anti-climax thanks to too much heroism on the part of the protagonists, but perhaps it was necessary to speed through the encounter, because there’s a twist waiting after its resolution: the dragon encounter isn’t the climax of the story. Can a false climax be accused of being anti-climactic? Possibly not, but I still would have enjoyed it more if these comic rogues had struggled and risked more for their victory. Moby Dick managed to take out the entire Pequod, but this awesome dragon fares little better than the grazing yak its antagonists warmed up with.
Still, don’t let my carping make you think it isn’t an enjoyable story. It’s fun and has a colourful setting and well-painted atmosphere. It probably would have stood on its own better for what it is – an enjoyable piece of fantasy – without the “ancient manuscript” pretence.