“I had two intentions in writing this book. The first was to create the character of Elzith. Being intrigued by spy characters, I began to speculate about their motives and backgrounds, characteristics often missing from popular portrayals of spies. I found material to flesh out this character in a pair of documentaries: one on confidence artists and one on Romanian orphans with reactive attachment disorder. This led me to create a voice in which I could express issues that interested me: what makes Elzith a good spy, and what is the cost to her.
My second intention was to provide an introduction to the world in which Confidence Game is set…”
– Michelle M. Welch
I’ll be honest with you: It’s another trilogy, and it‘s called The Five Kingdoms, and Confidence Game is the first. The book I bought did not say so on the cover. Maybe it says so now, because, you know, the other two books are out and they can’t hide it anymore.
And I read this book a long time ago, and my memory of the details is a tad sketchy. It’s set primarily in the land of Dalbion, ruled by the Judges, as neat a setting of amorphous and detailed oppression you could hope to find unless you actually look at some RL governments or something equally depressing. We’ve got corrupt, scared, powerful, unhappy, tired individuals, some of who manage to be all of these things at once. We’ve got some magic, a little underground at present. We’ve got blood and gore and love and sex and all that hoohaa that one expects. Or doesn’t.
We have Elzith the spy, Tod the bookbinder, and whatsisname the scared Judge. Right. We have Elzith the spy, Tod the bookbinder, and Paloman the scared Judge.
You know what, let’s get the bad bits over with first, because they are, in fact, very bad indeed. Elzith is pretty much the emotional centre of this novel. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it means that she also gets what is, if I recall correctly, the only first-person PoV narrative. Everyone else who has a PoV hotspot is in third person. So every so often – not always, but often – it’s her musings we read.
Elzith is boring. Anyone who didn’t like FitzChivalry FarSeer’s narrative style might know what I’m talking about. Meandering philosophy, self-involved enough that you can open wine bottles with her psyche, lots of “I have ze big heavy passssst” subtext, supertext, middletext. But the PoV improves: she gets less heavy as she goes on, and by the middle of the book, she’s fine…
Tod, on the other hand, is her polar opposite: he is a boring person, with a fairly boring history, with a fascinating voice. Tod brings Elzith into focus (or maybe it‘s vice versa, because I‘m not going to try heavy handed literary analysis here) and makes her fascinating as she should be. It’s like magic, and in some ways it’s Tod’s function in the work, and even though while I am writing this it seems like he’s a lightweight with no role in the novel he still belongs in it (Martin fans who mention Ned Stark shall be scoffed at).
Good dynamic between the Bad Guys, nice representation of the various reactions to a fear-based economy, nice hints of ze-past-shall-kick-ze-future’s-butt…
Why should you read this novel? For one thing, (Please don’t hate me, Larry? I’m nice, deep down) the world-building is, methinks, detailed and scrumptious. I like the sense I had of an actual place, with history, geography I could keep in my head (At this point I cannot remember any maps, but I’ve written it down in a little notebook so obviously I could!), a slightly less rigid divide between peoples of different cultures than I was expecting…
…for another thing, Welch’s prose is… what’s the word I want to use? Fresh? Spare? Like cut glass? It’s not ornate, it’s not pretty, it feels… hmm. It fits the world she is talking about, it’s understated, energetic, and possibly volcanic. I like the style, for the most part it works.
It was an underrated novel, I think, and it received an extremely mixed reaction. Almost everyone hated something – almost never the same thing – and lots of people loved something – usually not the same thing. Maybe the hype wasn’t enough. Maybe the reviews weren’t uniform enough. I dunno.
Best I can say: Try it. You might not be wasting your time.
(She has a page of her own and it’s fairly easy to find, but I think the site gives you too many spoilers and so you shall have to find it yourself.)
[I wrote this almost half a year ago, on another site, but I’ll be posting a review for the sequel soon, and it seemed right to have this one here. Be complete and to thine own self true, and other things of that nature.]