Sometimes I read books that make me very happy, so that I have to focus a lot to find reasons why other people would not be into them. Not so for The March North.
Don’t get me wrong: I like The March North a lot – but it’s also immediately clear why people would not agree with me. The good part is: If you make it past the first page with a smile, you’ll get through the book and possibly even like it. If you bounce off the first page, you won’t miss out on anything. Saunders is clever and not above showing off. After finishing the second chapter I started the book over, because at that point some things had started to make sense. I’m in love with this feeling of discovery.
The prose is dense, observations by a captain in a semi-magical army in a gruesome, deep fantasy world. Blink, and you’ll miss a minor or even major plot point that only exists in a snarky aside and then later an opaque short dialogue. Maybe comparable to early Charly Stross (also a Usenet person, by the way) – but more skillful, more consistent, and above all more confident in the lack of mass appeal. His characters may be a little flat, but there’s an in-text, in-perspective excuse, so I’ll hold out for the next book to see how that goes.
Plot-wise, it starts out as generic military fantasy, if such a thing exists, and then doesn’t give you any warning (Saunders really doesn’t do warnings) before throwing you headfirst into questions like “What would you do if you could foresee a civilisation collapse? What can you save?”, in a world where magical talent exists along exponential lines, with the really powerful being absurdly, unbelievably powerful, along the lines of “Hi, I’m Halt, I ruled for ten thousand years, but we don’t have records, that was before writing was invented.” The story takes place in the one and only non-demon non-autocracy nation in this world. Their concept is to pool power, and they have managed to beat or cajole enough immensely powerful beings into it that it’s been working out for a couple hundred years. So far.
That’s all there is to say, really.
Wait, two more things:
There is a five-ton war-sheep named Eustace, ridden by an immensely powerful being that takes shape as the generic adorable grandmother, complete with constantly knitting socks. Yes.
The other thing is that there is a linguistical gimmick to the book, and depending on how much you pay attention, you may notice it late, or not. I won’t tell you here, because it’s much more satisfying to figure it out yourself, but if you don’t see it, feel free to ask. It’s … weird, but I’m told that later books will hint at a reason.