By Anthony Ryan
I received an ARC of The Pariah from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review.
I am a relative newcomer to Ryan’s work, prior to The Pariah having only read (and mostly disliked) his Seven Swords novellas, although I have purchased many of his other books given their generally positive reputation in the fantasy community. After The Pariah, I am eager to catch up on Ryan’s earlier titles, because this is a flawed but highly accomplished work of fiction that was a truly a pleasure to read. The next entry in The Covenant of Steel series can’t come soon enough.
The Pariah follows Alwyn, an outlaw in what is clearly a fictionalized version of Great Britain in roughly the 13th or 14th century (some elements of earlier or later time periods bleed in, but that’s loosely the era in question—Robin Hood vibes are all over this book). If you enjoyed reading from the perspective of Kvothe in The Kingkiller Chronicle, Alwyn will appeal to you: his first-person narration is reflective and unreliable. This allows Ryan to flavor the text with delicious bits of foreshadowing, hinting at the fates of certain characters, and in-world epigraphs which appear at the beginning of the book’s three parts promise a tantalizingly bloody future for Alwyn himself.
I found myself a bit frustrated by how blatantly the world of The Pariah is painted over real peoples and real locations—The Covenant of Steel skews far closer to historical fiction than fantasy, at least at this point in the series; I expect that will change in successive entries—and almost would have preferred Ryan play with actual history and infuse it with fantastical elements rather than adopt this unconvincing façade. I did appreciate, though, how The Pariah is so utterly grounded. I like my fantasy with a minimum of magic because it feels all the more momentous when it does arise, and I can’t recall reading another fantasy novel since A Game of Thrones which contains such a striking lack of magic. There really isn’t any fantastical element in this book which couldn’t plausibly be explained by the fallibility of the human mind and how it perceives the world, and I enjoyed that aspect of The Pariah immensely.
(I also want to note that The Pariah, for the most part, does not engage with issues of race or sexuality, which I bring up not as a criticism—the locations and time periods from which this novel is derived makes it more forgivable; the fact that it is not actually those locations and time periods makes it less forgivable—but because there are opportunities to do so and my interest as a reader diminishes when those opportunities are not taken. The one major exception is handled by Ryan with such grace that it throws the absence of engagement with sexuality throughout the rest of the book into sharp relief. If The Covenant of Steel continues to center around a thematic core of Christianity-inspired religious zealotry, engagement with these issues is unavoidable.)
Ryan’s commitment to realism extends to the structure of the story itself. The Pariah doesn’t shy away from traditional tropes, but it also disregards the ebb and flow of conventional (a word which I am using here without its derogatory connotation) storytelling; its episodic nature unravels anything resembling a strong narrative thread, creating a slow-burn plot in which I was never on sure footing. This won’t work for everyone, but it did for me (to an extent—more on that in a moment). I love the feeling of not having a good grasp on the thrust of a story, and it’s especially effective in the early chapters of The Pariah, which are suffused with a sense of encroaching dread. This approach also allows characters to disappear from and return to the narrative with a casualness the resembles real life more than fiction, and Ryan is so good at making those characters pop off the page than it becomes pleasantly difficult to distinguish who will be a major player and who will have an arrow through the eye before the end of the chapter.
The Pariah’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It defies the rhythm of storytelling through the last line of the last page; it doesn’t build to anything, characters don’t have satisfying arcs, and then it ends so abruptly that, if the closing image weren’t such an obvious mirror to the image which opens the book, I would have thought my copy was missing several chapters at the very least. It just…stops. I realize The Pariah is the first of a trilogy, but this is a level of serialization I find hard to swallow—especially with a work of this length. You may want to wait until the series is complete if you want any measure of resolution, because you won’t find it here.
One other detail about The Pariah which brought me a great deal of delight: this is a novel saturated with a love of books, of libraries, and of writing, but unlike most authors, Ryan manages to highlight that love without patronizing his audience. His characters don’t wax poetic about how books are the Best Thing Ever™ in an insulting attempt to make me feel good about being a reader—he simply showcases the value of writing within the world of The Pariah, and he does so via the creation of it, the possession of it, and the destruction of it (there’s a scene in which books go up in flames, and I doubt I will be the only one who finds that sequence far more distressing than the many ways in which characters are brutally murdered throughout the novel).
The Pariah starts a series which I suspect will be greater than the sum of its parts; this is a book which feels like it was sliced off from a more fully-realized work and thus artificially truncated, and I would have preferred something resembling a climatic sequence or meaningful growth for Alwyn as a character, something—anything!—which would have mitigated the deep sense of bafflement and dissatisfaction I experienced when I finished this fairly substantial tome. That said, The Pariah exhibits excellent writing and high-class storytelling from beginning to end. I enjoyed every page, and I will be snatching up the sequel the instant I can get my hands on it.
Review by Erin Larson
The Pariah will be published August 24th, 2021.