That Bastard Wonderland by Lee Harrison (Wrecking Ball Press, 2016)
Reviewed by Arike Oke
You can take the lads out of Hull, but you can’t take Hull out of the lads. That’s okay, I’m a daughter of Hull myself. That means I appreciate the dourness, sarcasm and bittersweet melancholy of my home, all of which come through beautifully in this love letter of a fantasy debut from Lee Harrison. I mean: mushy peas get an origin story.
There’s a backlash right now against maps in fantasy books. Utter tosh say I. A novel with this geographic ambition, outlining a startlingly well realised alternative world, could only benefit from a map. I kept flicking to the frontmatter and the endpapers to find only blank pages, beautiful blank pages though. Wrecking Ball Press, a small press operating out of Hull (see, some kind of theme emerging!), has made a gorgeous edition of this book, cover, paper and font all working together to make a quality volume. Is the image chosen for the cover a small spoiler of a one of the story’s treats? Perhaps, but it looks well on’t.
The protagonist, and main point of view character, is Warboys. No relation to the tragic lost boys of Mad Max Fury Road, this Warboys is as laddish and uncouth as they come. He reluctantly teams up with his dad on a begrudging journey across their world. They are caught up in the expansionist ambitions of a Napoleon–like figure, but soon come up against the old belief systems of the territories they are forced to invade. It seems that there might be some truth in the old myths, but who can Warboys and his dad trust? Is anyone looking out for the underdogs in this war that on the surface is about a conflict of cultures, but underneath is as much about broken dreams and sickening ego as any real-world conflict throughout our own history.
Harrison shows us the other side of the conflict through the eyes of Nouzi Aaranya, a young man groomed from childhood in more ways than one to be a soldier and martyr for a cause he barely grasps. Whereas Warboys is solidly placed within the world of pubs, back streets, sailors, drinking and swearing, Nouzi is altogether more delicate. He’s led a life of direct indoctrination, rather than the societal conditioning of Warboys’ context. Nouzi’s own identity gradually surfaces as the plot unfolds. This forms an enlightening counterpoint to Warboys’ growing sense of responsibility to others. By the end of the book both men find themselves changed.
Harrison handles the dual point-of-view third person narration deftly. Each character is well drawn and distinctive. The plot, once past an avoidably slow and dialogue heavy first act, trips along happily building towards a satisfying, touching and cinematic denouement that still somehow manages to retain the ‘call a spade a spade’ Northern tone. Female characters are few and far between in this boys’ own tale, but as this story can be read as intrinsically about male relationships this paucity of female representation is hardly unexpected.
The world that Harrison has created for this story is startling in its clarity and depth. The technology, the big reveal, the language, religion, even the descriptions of landscape, sea and street are deft and convincing. It is a nice touch that Harrison prefaces sections of the book with quotations from archival texts from within the universe he’s created. Harrison has set up a world that could contain many more stories. We are not left with a cliff hanger so much as an open window looking out across a vista of real humans living real lives in which Harrison will find rich pickings for many more stories. I’ll be in line to read them, pattie buttie and chips in hand and wearing my ‘It’s Never Dull in Hull’ t-shirt. One request though, forget what the internet forums say: next time let’s have a map, eh lad?