The scar

The scar / Sergey and Marina Dyachenko 

The scar, first published in Russia in 1996, is a capital-L Literary fantasy novel. The authors use a secondary world to avoid having to confront strict historical realism à la K.J. Parker, tell a story that owes more to Tolstoy or Chekhov than it does Tolkein.

I read the Elinor Huntington translation, which is as far as I can tell the only English translation of this work.

Brief plot summary

Egert Soll is a wealthy soldier in a highly militaristic society. Arrogant to the extreme, he goes through life taking what he wants and generally scoffing at anyone weaker or less priviledged.

All this changes when, in an attempt to seduce a woman, Egert kills a young scholar in a one-sided duel. A mysterious wanderer, witnessing this, challenges Egert to a duel and leaves Egert with a deep facial scar and, apparently, a mysterious curse.

So how is it?

I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. This is an important book. It pushes the boundaries of the genre in unusual ways, and while it may not have reached well-known status in the U.S., I can easily see this becoming an enduring classic of the genre. The major obstacle to that status at the moment is the fact that it’s the second novel in a series, but the only one to have been translated into English so far. Still, it wasn’t exactly to my taste.

I think my discomfort with this book is mostly in how dark it is. From the beginning, Egert is an incredibly unlikeable character. This is a strength of the book overall, as it shows both his fall and subsequent attempt at redemption in greater contrast, but it made it a little more difficult for me to really get into it. After the first 75 pages or so it starts to get better, but getting to that point took a little while.

The scar is a distinctly masculine Bildungsroman with a Slavic sensibility, so as with Lord of the silver bow or The blade itself I had to do a little adjusting of my sensibilities accordingly. This is just me, but the older I get and the more I read the less interested I am in the “learning how to become a man” plotline that acts like “being a man” is a real thing and that it’s possible to fail at “being a man” by not living the proper morality/acting decisively/drinking heavily/getting married to a woman and “bringing home the bacon”/dressing up like J. Edgar Hoover/tipping one’s hat/being condescending to service professionals/wearing a tutu/eating lots of meat/changing your own oil/being “tech-savvy”/stifling your emotions/beating a dead horse/I think you get the idea. I find the concept of “masculinity” as some actual real definable thing mysterious and confusing too, and given that proper expression of “masculinity” seems to be the single most popular subject for fiction we’re not exactly breaking new ground here.

Gendered nonsense aside, I did end up enjoying The scar. It’s nice to read a fantasy novel where the action scenes aren’t wholly gratuitous. It’s not an action-packed book, instead it is overwhelmingly focused on character development, but the action there is is credibly written and absolutely integral to the, uh, integrity of the work.

It’s a good story, and it’s rare to see a book where the protagonists changes as mugh as Egert does without the changes seeming incredible or forced.

Recommendation

I have recommended this book before but for some reason I can’t remember to whom or how they felt about it (or even if they read it at all).

At its heart, The scar is a (low magic) sword & sorcery novel à la Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, but in a more literary vein. Readers who enjoyed Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser when they were younger and who find those works a little juvenile now might like the Dyachenkos’s more mature take on the subgenre.

It’s a definite recommendation for fans of K.J. Parker and Joe Abercrombie. It’s almost a book I’d recommend to non-fantasy fans but I think it’s a little too magical for those with a knee-jerk distaste for wizardry. It’s an ideal recommendation for those who don’t like fantasy as a rule but who enjoy Game of thrones and are looking to branch out beyond George R.R. Martin.

So, links:

Sharps / K.J. Parker.
The heroes / Joe Abercrombie
Game of thrones / George R.R. Martin

For those interested in something a little more pulp-fantasy:
Swords and deviltry / Fritz Leiber
The coming of Conan the Cimmerian / Robert E. Howard*

*Couple of observations here: I like this book because the stories are collected in publication order rather than attempting to fit everything into some internal chronology. Conan is like Sherlock Holmes in that many of the details don’t stay that consistent story to story as the authors weren’t really concerned with maintaining strict continuity.

Observation no. 2: I’d say, stick to the original Howard Conan stuff. Howard’s Conan is a terminally depressed rogue, not the “barbarian warlord” type seen in the movies and the various post-Howard adaptations. It’s a more interesting character. Like Lovecraft’s work, despite their flaws, the original stories hold up far better than the later imitators.

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