I’ll be honest – after reading the blurb, I didn’t open this book with joy in my heart. The prospect of reading a postmodernist twist on the genre, wherein the protagonist is lying in a coma while some fantasy world battles for his life, didn’t thrill. However, I was very pleasantly surprised.
Edward Fox has always retreated to his created fantasy world, The Zone, when the going gets tough. Traumatised at an early age by a horrific kidnapping ordeal and mentally abused by his stepmother, inside The Zone he is free of his dark memories and feels safe from the real world. Here, he is a God with awesome powers at his disposal.
However, when his worst memory somehow finds its way into his safe haven, Edward cannot cope. After a botched suicide leaves him in a coma, he awakens inside The Zone to find the rules have changed. Having lost his powers, he is being hunted by a mad Emperor, who is chillingly familiar…
This is a very different read from Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, despite some superficial similarities. For starters, Cloutier is a lot less dark than Donaldson and while both Edward Fox and Thomas Covenant are adrift in their own fantasy worlds, Edward is more at home in his creation. He is also a far more sympathetically flawed character. Although we are treated to glimpses of Edward’s childhood showing why he is so closed off, Cloutier is unflinching in depicting him as an inattentive husband too wrapped up in his own concerns. And yet we still care about him. It’s a neat trick to pull off.
It gets even more interesting. Interweaving through Edward’s life story is The Zone, peopled by a series of classic archetypal characters – the heroic, highly skilled swordsman… the overwhelmed wizard who finds extra power when necessary… the wise old man who foresees the coming calamity… the sadistic ruler… the feisty and capable heroine… As Edward stumbles helplessly amongst these people, they fall into two camps – those who believe in him as a God – and those who look at the trail of destruction in his wake and don’t believe.
It is an extremely clever, pertinent examination of some of the big questions that surround religion generally, and Christianity in particular. The theme of religion is a recurring one within the Fantasy genre – but it normally entails some priest/priestess questioning some of the values within an arcane, rigidly orthodox Faith. I cannot recall having a fallen God watch ‘his’ people suffer and not being able to help them. Or having a furious sufferer accuse said God of callous indifference.
And if this seems far too deep for you, because all you want out of a book is some escapist adventure tale with plenty of sword fighting – well, yes – this book ticks those boxes, too. The narrative zips along at a tidy pace and one of Cloutier’s strengths is his ability to describe every bloody sword slash in cinematic detail. There is plenty of blood and guts for those who enjoy such things – without any bad language or sex, by the way. All in all, this is an excellent, thought-provoking read – and I’ve started the second in the series with a great deal more enthusiasm. Which just goes to show that you can’t always judge a book by its cover…