Indie Book Review: Nine Parts Bluster
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Dark fantasy as a genre has only just begun to stratify into its own conventions. Up until now the entire shtick of dark fantasy was to take the tropes and tribulations of the mainstream fantasy genre and put them through the ringer. Within the pages of A. Z. Anthony’s dark fantasy short story collection “Nine Parts Bluster” we come upon a second-generation Dark Fantasy author and find the structure of the genre beginning to take shape before our very eyes.
There are four stories in this collection, presumably brought together by the shared world that they inhabit as well as the obvious thematic links between them. They are as much vignettes as they are full stories in themselves, but when taken as a whole they convey their message clearly. The world of these stories is not a nice place to live and both petty cruelty and blind ambition are rewarded readily with suffering.
I am aware that Anthony has a novel in the same setting as these stories, one in which the events of this collection will likely be entirely meaningless due to distance, but that novel seems to be the pivot point for each of these stories. We are given little detail about the world that the brutal events take place in, being granted only glimpses and place-names that may provide us with some insights based on our knowledge of their real-world counterparts and history, but that is rarely to the detriment of the plot. Each one of the stories is tersely written in a curious blend of an archaic, almost purple prose and a strangely clipped ultra-modern style that lends itself perfectly to the stories themselves.
The titular “Nine Parts Bluster” and the closing story “Respectable Work” share characters and give the clearest impression of the living and breathing world that Anthony is attempting to reveal, one in which a hero in one town may be the villain of the next and where monster hunting and murdering runaway debtors for a crime lord are considered to be of equal value and importance. Their timid narrator is used to extol the dubious virtues of those around him and give us a sense that while his companion is loathsome up close, he would likely strike a fascinating, one might almost say heroic, figure to the people within the world.
“In The Garden of Giants” and “Kiss of the White Mistress” form the mid-section of the book, depicting both ends of the social spectrum and their starkly different attitudes. The former story actually shares many plot elements from “Nine Parts Bluster,” which caused the reader to compare them almost immediately, but while the character of Senesio Sulemain Zhao is potent enough to carry the same course through to victory, there is no such happy ending for the foppish explorer of “The Garden of Giants.” Kiss of the White Mistress, meanwhile, features the lowest of the low in Anthony’s world, swamp dwellers and bandits living constantly on the edge of desperation and death. It is the strongest of the four stories, with genuine tension from the beginning to end.
I questioned the order of the first two stories to begin with until I realised that the invitation to compare them was a deliberate decision. Just as Anthony borrows from Asian cultures to furnish his world, he has similarly drawn on Chinese literature as a format, with each story’s similarities and differences being layered upon one another to form a more developed view of the world overall.
While reading this book I was most closely reminded of the work of Robert E. Howard. There is little dialogue, with most characters preferring actions to words and the writing strongly favouring the brief bursts of action. While Senesio is no Conan, he certainly shares at least some of the same DNA, and it isn’t impossible that the famous Cimmerian might not have ended up as a similar ambition obsessed monster if he had been dropped into a world like this.