Let me make two things clear up front: First, in spite of the shared surname I am not related to Rachel Cotterill. This is not a family-member review. I was attracted to her book by the novelty of seeing my own (rare here in Canada) name on a published novel. Second, don’t let this book’s horrible cover put you off. Yes, I know it looks like some dreary leftist literary novel about Hispanic poverty in the American South-West, but the book is actually a lively fantasy adventure with a mythical setting, an interesting female main character (named simply Eleanor), and a strong martial-arts theme.
Much of the novel’s action – and there’s plenty of it - takes place at what might best be described as a Hogwarts for assassins. These assassins are like medieval knife-wielding poison-toting secret agents who go out on dangerous missions in defence of a shadowy Empire which straddles a forested archipelago. Robin Hobbs’ Assassin’s Apprentice comes to mind. If you liked Hobbs’ book you’ll probably enjoy Rebellion as well. The novel’s pace is fast and fight scenes are abundant. The knife fights are especially good, as are the tense climbing episodes where Eleanor – never short on endurance and courage - scales prison towers or castle walls with only the scantiest of toe and finger holds. Weaponry includes throwing stars and these add a pleasing ninja touch to the young assassins. There are imaginative puzzles to be solved, unusual competitions to be won, occasional glances at Eleanor’s ambiguous feelings towards a young man, and for good measure, some deep-seated grudges among the students which mean scores to be settled. These elements provide more than enough variety to guarantee a good read.
The novel does have some shortcomings. The plot is so vaguely presented that, at times, I had trouble understanding what was going on – or why it was going on. In the early chapters Cotterill seems too focussed on showing us how her main characters try to avoid offending one another - the result of long exposure to political correctness, no doubt – but she does get over this. Then it’s on to flogging the tired old feminist horse. (It is an unceasing wonder to me that the poor beast has yet to expire!) At one point the story dwells somewhat morbidly, but not unrealistically, on torture and being cut. This seems needlessly extended at the time, but turns out to be important in shaping Eleanor’s character and affecting her responses to critical situations later on. There are exceptions, but Cotterill’s depiction of minor characters exhibits an odd juxtaposing of those who are wantonly cruel and those who are ridiculously obliging. What seaside inn-keeper, to choose one incident, would loan his boat to a total stranger, for an indefinite period of time, without asking for some sort of deposit or surety? What is needed is the more typically human – and far more interesting - mix of virtue and vice. People are more often motivated by the realities of basic self-interest (money, sex, prestige) than by the desire to be unspeakably cruel or super nice. Nowhere is this more evident than in simple societies such as those depicted in Rebellion.
Some might question the novel’s implied morality. Eleanor’s values range from astonishingly shallow to questionable in the extreme. The young woman unswervingly assumes that personal need justifies stealing so long as you the keep the thefts small and spread them around (with the occasional grand theft when things get really bad). It seldom occurs to her that she might barter or offer to work for what she wants. I was amused when Eleanor makes a point of conscientiously paying the bill at an inn – with money she has just stolen by the fistful from a jewellery merchant in the marketplace. Why not simply stiff the innkeeper? Presumably, in Eleanor’s eyes, said innkeeper was a nice obliging fellow of modest means while the prosperous merchant was – well – a nasty grasping greedy capitalist oinker; a veritable corporatist in the bud. Perhaps; but on the other hand he just might be an honest lover of beautiful, and beautifully-crafted, things who, through hard work and ingenuity, has found a way to earn his living from the very objects he so admires.
Other problems include poor handling of time and distance. I was startled to discover that Eleanor’s attempts to find her way to the assassin’s school had taken up an entire year, and at one point she seems to consider recovering some stored possessions in a quick visit to a cave which is actually many days travel away. These minor quibbles and the plot difficulties alluded to earlier could have been solved with a little more authorial narrative aimed at clarifying situations and knitting together story elements into a more cohesive whole.
No work of fiction is perfect. This novel’s flaws impede neither the story’s strong forward momentum nor its ability to sustain the reader’s interest. As they should in a good adventure novel, things start happening right away and they keep on happening. Whether on land or at sea, in foreign parts or at home in the Empire, the story laid out in this engrossing novel is often exciting and never boring. The writing is sound with none of the horrendous spelling, grammar, and English usage gaffs so prevalent in indie novels. Cotterill has real talent. Reading Rebellion will get you in on the ground floor with a young writer who has the potential to become a major player in the fantasy genre.
(reviewed 48 days after purchase)