Reading the many other reviews for P.C. Hodgell’s writing, I’m inclined to conclude that she must be something like cilantro, or truffle oil, or hot Thai peppers. Many people love it, some people hate it, and no one stands on the middle ground of “Eh, it’s nice enough, I suppose.” I stand firmly in the love-it camp. I revisit this series once every year or two, as new novels come out, and I always start at the beginning with God Stalk.
That’s also how often I treat myself to stir-fry with hot Thai peppers. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. With the stir-fry, I gorge on my treat until my scalp sweats from the heat, even though it leaves my tongue burned and my throat raw. Hodgell’s writing id far easier on my digestion. It isn’t without its drawbacks, but oh, the supernova explosion of flavors, colors, textures and spice! The ideas and the characters and the world are worth every wince.
You’ll love it or you’ll hate it. I urge you to try it, if you dare to immerse yourself in a world of dazzling originality, and wrap yourself in a plot of epic complexity and universal scope.
There are gods-a-plenty, more magic than the world can safely hold, immigrants and natives, a long, colorful history, a reality-destroying threat, family betrayal, scandals, rogues, thieves, a hint or two of incest…God Stalk in particular is a big glorious mishmash of ideas that you can either gobble up indiscriminately, or poke at, bemused by the tangled mess it makes on the plate.
I don’t review plot specifics. That’s why cover blurbs exist, and synopses, and wikis. What I will offer are four disclaimers:
1) If you’re a plot purist, if you expect the gun in Act 1 to get used in Act 3, you will be aggravated. If you are more concerned with the whys and hows of the storyline than the living, breathing details of the characters and their messy lives, then you may find it frustrating. The joys in this book are in the brilliance of its scenic moments and the occasional flashes of genius in its dialogue, not its cohesive presentation.
2) P.C. Hodgell writes with a deceptively simple presentation that hides a lot of stylistic quirks. I love the way she makes the words flow, but then again, I write in the same not-as-simple-as-it-looks style. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “It’s really rough for a hundred pages or so, and then it gets better, I guess that’s where you hit your stride.” then I could buy a steak dinner at Mortons. A bunch of Hodgell reviews say the same thing. It makes me sigh.
I find it useful to translate that criticism to mean that it may take a reader about a hundred pages to get accustomed to the author’s style and stop noticing it. Critics of Literary Fiction consider this burden to fall on the shoulders of the reader. (F’rex, no one will ever say, “Ah, Finnegan’s Wake. It was confusing for the first few chapters, but then James Joyce got his act together, so I’ll only subtract one star from the rating.) For some reason, many reviewers and readers of genre fiction conclude that it’s a flaw, rather than a feature.
3) If you have a low tolerance for metaphor, colorful description and body parts that move with their own purpose, then this book will make you twitch. That’s a recent style-critic complaint I’m seeing far more often these days, and it’s another one that makes me roll my eyes and mutter curses at my computer. People’s fingers do curl. Their knees go weak. It isn’t a sin to describe them as such. (Like anything good, the trick can be overdone. That’s a matter of taste, not rule. ANYway.) Writing should have rhythm. If adding some superfluous” words or “cliche” phrases makes the pattern hit the right beats, then I vote yes, and with enthusiasm.
4) This book is the first in a series of seven. God Stalk came out in 1983. The sequel, Dark of the Moon, came out in 1985. The next took another 9 years to be released, and a gap of 12 years passed before the fourth hit the shelves. The author’s writing changes a lot between, and in a couple of cases within books. On top of that, the plots go from murky, intricate plots to the more commercially acceptable simple storylines — although interestingly enough, they all stick to the same, ‘a year to each book’ coverage. I found the shift from book 3 to 4 a little jarring, but I got over it.
If none of these caveats put you off — and they certainly don’t deter me from my regular samplings of Hodgell’s work — if they pique your interest, or actively arouse your interest, then order up Baen Books’ omnibus editions of the first few novels, pick up your mental chopsticks and dig in.
P.S: there are gargoyles in this book, as well as cats, frogs, thieves, and jewels. Just in case any of those are selling points.