the Little Red Reviewer

The Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich

Posted on: October 25, 2014

the scroll of yearsThe Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich

published in 2013

where I got it: purchased new

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On the run for murder, the thief Imago Bone and his poet wife Persimmon Gaunt find themselves halfway across the planet. They keep their heads down in the country of Qiangguo, in hopes the Night Auditors won’t be able to follow their trail. They need some friends, and fast, as Gaunt will be giving birth to their son any day now.  If they’d just stop running long enough to see that maybe there’s something bigger happening around them….

 

The parts of The Scroll of Years had so much potential – a scroll you can fall into, the political complications of a royal heir who is a foreigner, creeptastically cool villains, a parallel world where time flows differently, interesting characters, fun world building.  With all those fantastic pieces to work with, it’s unfortunate that the plotting and characters never came together in a  coherent enough fashion for me to really get invested in the story.

 

Let’s talk about the good parts first.

The titular scroll itself steals every scene it’s in, and is just the coolest thing ever.  Stolen from a tomb, and created by a master artisan, it is said the brush work is so detailed that people to look too closely can fall right into the picture, and become imprisoned as a brushstroke. You can in fact, fall into this painting, and many of the characters do. Luckily, the artisan painted himself into the scroll, so his self portrait will greet you, and assist you if he deems you worthy. Is the scroll truly a prison? or is it a  secret hideaway for something so precious that even to speak of it could cause a civil war?  Something heartbreaking happens inside the scroll, and if the Self-portrait has a chronicle of the history of the scroll, I’d love to read it.

 

Gaunt and Bone find their story intertwined with two young thieves, Flybait and Next-One-A-Boy.  Yes, that is her name, and she knows how thankful her parents were that their next child was a boy. So thankful in fact, that Next-One became the servant of her younger brother.  Next-One easily and quickly became one of my favorite characters. She knows that her life and her destiny is her own hands. She knows she doesn’t want to go back to a life of servitude, so she makes her decisions very carefully.

 

The Night Auditors, the father and son bounty hunter team who will stop at nothing to arrest Bone and Gaunt were some fantastically creepy bad guys. The younger Auditor, Hackworth, has a piece of scrying glass shoved halfway through his head. As unsettling as it would be to see someone survive such an injury, the glass allows Hackworth to see the future of his quarry, and show them in their last moments how little hope they truly have. I got shivers up my spine everytime Hackworth and his father showed up.

 

I quite enjoyed the beginning of The Scroll of Years and how the story was set up and the characters introduced. The end will tug on your heartstrings and you’ll be rooting for everyone to have a happy ending. However, the middle was muddled, strangely paced, and unfortunately very forgettable.

 

I both loved and had issues with Qiangguo, the country in which most of the story takes place.  Upon first running into the word, my first thought was “hey, that sounds a lot like Chung Kuo”, another name for China. As it turned out,  Qiangguo is a fantasy China, the same way many fantasy novels take place in a fantasy Western Europe.  Qiangguo is a magnificently complex place, with a rich royal history complete with warring factions, a functioning underbelly, farms as far as the eye can see, and bustling market places and harbors.  However, I found it paralleling China so closely that I just starting calling the country China, what with it’s Guangzhou style harbor district for foreigners, it’s martial arts culture, it’s calligraphic artwork, it’s Forbidden City, it’s pagodas, it’s monks, it was everything Chinese except for the word “China”.  Maybe Willrich was nervous to appropriate a culture that not his, maybe he wanted to play with the history and culture a bit (he does). Regardless, I could only envision a historical China akin to what I found in the beautifully written Bridge of Birds. Willrich’s Qiangguo was never a fantasy world for me: it was just China.  Not a spoiler, but right at the end of the novel we get intimations that there are non-humans living among us.  By that point in the story, that tidbit completely comes out of left field. Had it come much earlier, I would’ve had a much easier time see Qiangguo as a completely different place.

 

The characterization and pacing also had me scratching my head at times. When Gaunt learns the Self-Portrait also enjoys poetry, it was a perfect opportunity for them to have a discourse on their shared passion, a scene that could have provided world building for the Self-Portrait’s life and world, and characterization for both characters. Alas, the conversation never took place. Next-One, she of the fascinating backstory and one of my favorite characters, is quickly relegated to “girlfriend”, once Flybait decides he’s ready for a bigger and better life of crime.  Flybait gets plenty of page time, and other than being in the right place and the right time, I didn’t find him all that interesting.  I was saddened that characters who were given such interesting backgrounds seemed pushed not to talk about their past. There is also the issue of plot-device-y deus ex machina, with a couple of characters who show up just as other characters need rescuing.
The Scroll of Years was a pretty piece of escapism, it just never quite cohered for me.  Doesn’t help either, that I just read Bridge of Birds, a story that has a few parallels (thieves, adventures in China, mayhem ensues) and is so beautifully written that anything I read right afterwards would seem mediocre.

 

There are a number of short stories that Willrich published along side The Scroll of Years, and I’ve been told by trusted sources that the novel makes much more sense if you read the short stories first. For those of us who didn’t seek out the short stories, a short synopsis at the beginning of this novel could have saved me a lot of frustration.

 

9 Responses to "The Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich"

I was sent a copy of the book for review, and had read some good stuff about it, but something about the writing just didn’t click with me. I read a great chunk of it in one sitting and was so unimpressed that I finally decided my lack of caring meant I should stop and find something more engaging to read.

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quality of prose wise, the beginning was the roughest part to get through. My husband read the book first, and he wanted me to read it so we could discuss it. Had it not been for his request, I would have bailed as well.

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Too bad, this is one I enjoyed. Liked the sequel as well, but not quite as much. Though I also didn’t care about Flybait in any way, shape, or form.

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Nice to know I’m not the only one who didn’t care about Flybait. Is there just 2 novels in the series? or more?

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Two out, third one out next year. Not sure if it is planned to be a trilogy or longer though.

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I’ve actually read two of the earlier Gaunt and Bone stories (which were part of a sequence) and I enjoyed them very much. Didn’t know there was a novel. Kinda bummed it’s not so good though

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I’m sure I would have liked the novel more had I read the short stories first. Read as one long sequence, I bet it would be great! Since you liked the short stories, you should give the novel a try.

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I suppose i will! Thats the first novel in its series, right? Sadly, the short stories aren’t collected as far as I can tell.

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That cover is rather lovely. Not sure if I want to try this or not. I shall consult the brain.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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