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Fain The Sorcerer
Steve Aylett
PS Publishing paperback £10 / $18

review by Steven Hampton

Modern fantasy tends to occupy charming or sinister little realms of pointless illusion and petty strife. Generally, fantasy has become a shrunken moral territory governed by yardstick plots and questing (but rarely questioning) characters following treasure maps with a simplistic view to regaining something once lost or winning their heart's desire. Now mostly harmless, the field is maintained by unchallenging, poultry house authorship, every machine-fed battery-hen novelist producing fool's golden eggs, and doing so like clockwork. In short, today's epic series and trilogy sagas lack ideas, and the genre spoofs labelled as 'comic-fantasy' merely toy with the menu when they should feasting.

Obviously, this is far too style-cramping a place for a behemoth-sized talent like Steve Aylett, who prefers to roam fantasy's undiscovered wilderness, or, at least, gambol on free-range outings, courtesy of independent farms (sorry, the indie press). Fain The Sorcerer tackles fantasy with Aylett's inimitable style. Here's melancholy served up at a mercurial pace, a weird fable of emotive wonder, and rapidly shuffled postcards (wish you were there?) of widescreen spectacle, skilfully balanced with droll humour, condensed from raw imagination and the stuff of nightmares. There's no meandering, no overweight symbolism. Brevity is probably the most admirable trait a writer might possess. Aylett never wastes a moment of your reading time here; acerbic, feral ideas are flung about like grenades of confetti and shrapnel.

But similes are cursed along with metaphors. If you're looking for frivolous adventure Fain will disappoint mightily. Upon arrival, the unsuspecting reader is thrown out the main entrance, to face a driven snowstorm of chillingly nuanced phrasing that drags into view a tumult of astounding images primed to assault your expectations of what constitutes fantasy and/ or comedy. The door to safety is locked while the reader is lashed by superior erudition and consummate eloquence.

Fain was an honest gardener before he got magic powers. Although much troubled by his seeming good fortune, he boldly saves a princess, meets a fabulous mermaid, falls to his death, fights a terrible dragon, offends the king, visits a pyramid, escapes death (again), finds a mentor, hunts down a villain, faces a vengeful witch, and then finally gets old´┐Ż However, nothing in such a paltry synopsis can hope to give even a taste of the literary delights and thrills awaiting you in Fain The Sorcerer. Although this is a short novel - no bigger than a chapbook, in fact - the content has surprising density, which decompresses while you read, unfolding into something grander, like a giant butterfly emerging from a tiny cocoon.

In his introduction, Alan Moore notes that Aylett is "a staunch traditionalist" when it comes to 'genre' fiction, but clarifies that Aylett's work stems from the "tradition of originality" - when literary SF and fantasy was read for its "intellectual shock" value not for the blissful ignorance of pure escapism. Throughout Fain, you may well hear grumbling echoes from Ali Baba and Don Quixote, while Cabell, Twain, and the evil genius of Monty Python whine in the background. The ghost of Gulliver also haunts chapters of this absurdist, fast-forward narrative. But readers should beware others' whisperings; attend only to the authorial voice that ushers you across the 'Bridge of Exasperation'.

The pendulum of satire has become rusty and blunt of late. Aylett's valiant efforts to re-sharpen the blade and overhaul the neglected mechanism have put black comedy and tragic farce back in working order. Thanks to Aylett's vacations in the towns of Beerlight and Accomplice, and special thanks to Jeff Lint, deadly wit and storybook wisdom are back in vogue at the flaying edge of genre fiction. The corpus of populist fantasy lies shackled on the table. Ready for a fine carve-up?
Fain The Sorcerer by Steve Aylett

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