Verdict: For those who have tried making art and failed, "The Crimson Battle Axe" vexes the way only passable fiction can — it reminds you how hard it is to do these things well, which isn’t the same as doing them competently. Oddo’s book is unreal in both the good and bad senses of the word.
Curtis Oddo’s debut novel, “The Crimson Battle Axe”, is fantasy pure and simple. There are themes that might get you thinking about the real world, so to say. But they are painted in with a broad, not entirely artful brush.
Gnarl, who wields the eponymous axe, fights against his oppressors, the humans, who for over a hundred years have enslaved his people. Thelady, the daughter of a human warrior, is an unlikely symbol of kindheartedness in an otherwise malicious species. She should be Gnarl’s natural enemy, but when Gnarl meets Thelady, he vows to protect her if she should ever need it. (SPOILER ALERT: she does).
When Thelady comes calling, she asks Gnarl to protect not only her lovely self but her people — his oppressors — too. He agrees and joins forces with them to fight the Dark Lord Nobis, a common enemy who Oddo depicts as an evil greater than the humans (which for this misanthrope was almost one leap of imagination too far, but I rolled with the sword-play anyway). Oddo’s otherwise bouncy, plot-heavy story is lent gravity by the doubt his characters’ routinely express over their own choices, as they navigate the moral complexities of Oddo’s world.
Oddo has said his main inspirations for the book were his lifelong reading in classical mythology and the famous 1973 essay by Ray Bradbury, “Zen in the Art of Writing.” So, unlike many debut swords and sorcery novels (I presume), The Crimson Battle Axe shows a “meta” reflex toward the imaginative powers required to create it. This isn’t to say the novel is post-modern or that it flaunts this self-consciousness in a way that will pull your attention from the story (and thank Zeus for that). But it does seem to be a book that’s greatest impact will be on readers who haven’t already begun to sort through some of these issues (the ambiguity of the written word; an author’s anxious relationship with memisis; etc) for themselves.
“Escape” is the watchword for this novel — perhaps it’s the only word. So, despite Oddo’s stated aspirations to appeal to all ages with his celebration of creativity and fancy, the sweet spot for this book appears to me to be readers between the ages of seven and ten. Or, more simply, readers whose imaginations have yet to be troubled by a record of their own setbacks. For those who have tried making art and failed, “The Crimson Battle Axe” vexes the way only passable fiction can — it reminds you how hard it is to do these things well, which isn’t the same as doing them competently. Oddo’s book is unreal in both the good and bad senses of the word.
Reviewed by Andrew Stout for IndieReader
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