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Kultus
Richard Ford
Solaris paperback £7.99

review by Maureen Kincaid Speller

It would be expecting too much to hope for subtlety in someone described as a "mercenary, demonist, bastard, and thug-for-hire" and in that respect Thaddeus Blaklok does not disappoint. His philosophy is quite simple, to get in the first blow, and then several more, before his opponent can retaliate. This is not to say that it is a particularly successful philosophy, given the number of times that Blaklok himself is turned into a bloodied pulp by his enemies, but he gets by. Sometimes he even gains a brief respite when, for a change, his enemies turn on each other. And yet we know that soon enough everyone will be chasing after Thaddeus Blaklok yet again.

The back-cover strap-line promises "a steam-powered burlesque of brutal demonic action," but the word that sprang most readily to my mind was 'tedium'. Why? Because whatever the cover may promise, this novel has a remarkably limited repertoire of stylistic tricks which it runs through time and again, most of which involve Thaddeus Blaklok hitting someone or being hit by them. Nonetheless, that strap-line provides a useful jumping-off point for attempting a deeper analysis of the novel: 'steam-powered' suggests inevitably we're looking at a steampunk novel. One might then expect a richly detailed setting, with particular emphasis on, among other things, transportation, architecture, and clothing - to create a real sense of atmosphere.

However, Richard Ford sidesteps this by setting his story in a town which he calls Manufactory, which gives the vague impression of being divided into various quarters, some inhabited by the rich (who appear to have a habit of building towers with book-lined studies), others comprising underground bars and clubs, where the lowlife of Manufactory, of whom there appear to be many, hang out. The rest of the town is very thinly sketched indeed. There is a Repository of Unnatural Things, which seems to be a counterfactual nod at the Victoria and Albert museum, perhaps, and at least one lodging house, where Blaklok himself lives, but it is otherwise very difficult to form any impression of the place, other than that it is grimy, except when it isn't.

To all intents and purposes it is a setting that pops up as needed and folds away when the story moves on. It has no real distinguishing features and certainly doesn't feel like a place where people actually live. And oddly enough, it's difficult to believe that Manufactory is actually steam-powered. Beyond that, the one major concession to steam-punkery is that one character is described as having lately returned from the Moon. How he got there is not explained, a trick no steampunk author would have missed.

Turning to the 'brutal demonic action', there is no doubt that the novel does indeed contain brutal action, and demons, or that the two are often closely juxtaposed. The question is, though, why demons? The upper classes of Manufactory appear to be obsessed with them. There seems to be a brisk trade in demon-raising artefacts, passed among and stolen by various feuding demon-worshipping cults. It is rather too easy to lose track of who they all are, not least because they seem to be led by interchangeable incompetent upper-class twits or, for variation, demented upper-class twits. What remains opaque is why they are all obsessed with demon-worship. It may be that this is a purely upper-class preoccupation, like fox-hunting, or a harmless pastime, as one has the sense that they mostly seem surprised when their demon-summoning rites actually work. But given that Blaklok himself has demonic connections, should we treat him as some sort of parvenu, or look for a Marxist interpretation of Kultus? None of this quite makes sense, except insofar as the story appears to require an uncouth working-class, demon-raising oik to run around, shaming and thwarting the incompetent upper classes.

Of Blaklok himself we learn little. He is obviously intended to be a man of mystery, a man with a dark past, possibly involving his family. How he came by his tattoos, which are suddenly, part way through the novel, revealed to be signs of power, we do not know, but the overly-elaborate subtle hints suggest that he has probably sold his soul because, after all, isn't that what they all do? The point is, in fact, that there is very little that is mysterious about Blaklok, except why he is running around, failing to keep a grip on the equally mysterious artefact, the Key of Lunos, which he is required to steal for his inevitably mysterious employers. Blaklok, not being of a particularly enquiring turn of mind, does not wonder what it is or why they want it; he simply trundles off to get it. There is not much for the reader to chew on; clearly he or she is supposed to sit back and enjoy the ride, except that the stop/ start movement of the narrative makes one wonder if it wouldn't be easier to get out and walk.

It is, though, the word 'burlesque' that mostly occupies my mind. It is a word with a number of meanings, but we can easily put aside any thought of this novel being a variety show with bump-and-grind dancing, though I grant you there is an ongoing heavy-handed attempt at ribaldry, of the kind that reminds one that small boys do indeed find shit, vomit and bodily functions incredibly funny. In fact, women are, with the exception of the lovely Indagator Amelia, who is some sort of police investigator, conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, one half-suspects that Indagator Amelia exists only in order to be patronised by the male characters. Otherwise, her presence in the aggressively masculine world of Manufactory simply cannot be accounted for.

But burlesque can also refer to a ludicrous or mocking imitation, or else a piece of work that presents a solemn subject in an undignified style or vice versa. Is it possible that Ford is actually trying to take the piss out of steampunk? It might account for some of the peculiar holes in the story, the flimsy characterisations, as well as the bizarrely overwrought language in which much of the story is written, and the general underlying tone of nudge-nudge. And yet, to judge from the interviews Ford has given, I don't think this is so; he clearly intends Kultus to be a serious piece of work.

The trouble is, it really isn't that good. By the end of the novel, although the body count is high, little of significance has happened. The Key of Lunos has been passed from one person to the next, fumbled, dropped, picked up again, like a baton in the hands of a particularly inept relay team, and yet, how far have we got in narrative terms? Not far enough. One dreads the arrival of the unfortunately necessary sequel.

Kultus by Richard Ford



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