Review: The Scroll of Years by Chris Willrich

The Scroll of YearsTitle: The Scroll of Years (Gaunt and Bone #1)

Author: Chris Willrich

Publisher: Pyr on September 24, 2013

Source: Purchased

Rating StarRating StarRating StarRating Star

It’s Brent Weeks meets China Mieville in this wildly imaginative fantasy debut featuring high action, elegant writing, and sword and sorcery with a Chinese flare.

Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone are a romantic couple and partners in crime. Persimmon is a poet from a well-to-do family, who found herself looking for adventure, while Imago is a thief in his ninth decade who is double-cursed, and his body has not aged in nearly seventy years. Together, their services and wanderlust have taken them into places better left unseen, and against odds best not spoken about. Now, they find themselves looking to get away, to the edge of the world, with Persimmon pregnant with their child, and the most feared duo of assassins hot on their trail. However, all is never what it seems, and a sordid adventure-complete with magic scrolls, gangs of thieves, and dragons both eastern and western-is at hand.

While The Scroll of Years is the first full-length Gaunt and Bone adventure, Chris Willrich introduced these characters – and some very important context – in short stories, the most famous of which is The Thief With Two Deaths. For some inexplicable reason, Pyr chose to include this story after the full novel rather than before; thankfully many of my blogging friends told me that I should read the short story first.

For it’s in The Thief With Two Deaths that we are introduced to the enemies of Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, two adventurous ne’er do wells who are falling in love. Unfortunately for the lovers Bone manages to royally piss off the infamous kleptomancers, the dark sorcerers of Palmary who gain their power by literally stealing hearts. From people’s chests. These baddies are powerful enemies who vow to make Bone and all those he loves suffer.

Which brings us to The Scroll of Years, in which Bone and a very pregnant Gaunt (the irony is too good) must flee mercenaries sent by the kleptomancers they wronged in The Thief With Two Deaths. One of these things doesn’t really make sense without the other, so try to bear that in mind. The mercenaries chasing Gaunt and Bone are called Night Auditors, creatures who can erase your memories and turn you into little more than a dried out husk.

If Gaunt and Bone are to outwit the Night Auditors, they must befriend the people of Qiangguo, the Eastern province where they now find themselves. Qiangguo is a wonderful setting, clearly influenced by traditional Chinese culture: subsistence farmers work on rice paddies, and they abide by the Way. The Way is a philosophical ideal of behavior and consciousness, so of course it creates a lot of tensions among the people of Qiangguo. But this nation is far from a cultural melting pot: people of all races, religions, and linguistic backgrounds converge in this great empire to trade – and to influence the tide of a nation. For Gaunt and Bone soon realize that their presence in Qiangguo was born of more than just desperation, and that their unborn child may be the real target of those who pursue them.

As they meet new friends and allies, their fates converge with those of two other pairs of lovers. These three couples are all in different stages of both life and love: one pair dances around their potential courtship, one is expecting a child, and old wounds and pride have separated the final pair. Of all the couples my favourite was youngsters Next-One-A-Boy and Flybait. Their whole shtick as bickering adolescent bandits who live among the urban poor was very Dickensian and I loved every second of it.

Unfortunately Willrich’s commitment to representing a traditional view of yin and yang, like and unlike through these couples meant that he missed an opportunity to explore a nuanced same-sex relationship. In fact there wasn’t a single queer character in the whole book – and there are a LOT of characters thrown around. Many of these characters also tell each other Qiangguo’s famous legends, which often feature love stories, and none of these involved LGBT people either.

This absence of sexual diversity really irked me because I felt like Willrich could’ve done so much with a queer couple. His impeccable writing is highlighted throughout The Scroll of Years as he describes countless cultures; for this to be a five-star book I needed him to push the envelope a bit more and it just didn’t happen. I don’t need a queer character or couple in every book, nor do I need a cishet romance, but for a book that’s so reliant on romantic relationships to exclude sexual diversity was a pretty big wasted opportunity.

Hetero-normative relationships aside, The Scroll of Years was a delight to read, with its unique world building and lovable characters. It’s no wonder that the art of storytelling takes on such an important role in The Scroll of Years, since Willrich himself is a wonderful storyteller whose lyrical prose elevates this novel from a fun quest book to a thoughtful examination of ancient philosophies. Another awesome element was the different magics that Willrich introduced. Wulin warriors can manipulate chi, allowing them to perform otherwise impossible physical feats; dragons from both the East and the West fly through the skies, their mating rituals causing fiery explosions; and of course there is the titular scroll of years, a landscape painting that allows people to hide inside its canvas. SO COOL!

The final chapters of the book were chock-full of action, and the last few pages revealed a secret that actually made me gasp. Call me oblivious but I did NOT see that one coming at all! It was the perfect kind of ending: some plot threads wrap up, but not too tidily, and there are exciting developments without any god-awful cliffhangers. I can’t wait to see where these new developments will lead in the sequel, The Silk Road. Bring it on!

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  • I didn’t read the short story first, I confess 😛 I was told it wasn’t necessary, so I guess I could understand Pyr’s decision to stick the short story at the end. Add to that, he’s actually got more than ten years’ worth of shorts about these two characters before this novel even came out, and I definitely wasn’t going to be able to track them down and read them all so I figured, why not just jump in! So I did and thank goodness I wasn’t lost or confused at all 😀

    Glad you enjoyed this one! Two things that really impressed me with these books – 1) the fact the two characters started off as lovers, so you don’t have BS romance drama (well, Gaunt and Bone’s relationship presented a whole other different set of issues, but at least they’re much more interesting!) and 2) the awesome world. I love seeing eastern-inspired settings in fantasy!

    ~Mogsy @ BiblioSantum

    • I get a little weird about reading things in chronological order – I’m that one person who will go and read every single short story or novella in a long running series before moving on to the next book! Maybe as my TBR pile grows I’ll let that go a bit, but not any time soon.

      I completely agree! And the conflict between Gaunt and Bone is realistic and built from life changes rather than silly misunderstandings or jealousy. Eastern settings are my jam right now – I’ve been reading a bunch of great Asian-inspired SFF novels lately!

  • Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    Oh, I should read this. And I love when I don’t see something coming at all! Unpredictability makes stories more interesting!

    • Every one of my blogging friends who’s read it gave it four or five stars – apparently it’s one of those “something for everyone” series! I have a feeling you’d really like this one, Lisa.

  • Good prose, a touch a weird, and a couple that fight for each other. I am loving this series.

  • Tammy

    I didn’t read the short story either. There was a short story? Maybe not in the version I read. In any case, I really enjoyed both books so far. If you’re looking for a book that’s filled with all sorts of sexual diversity, you should hit up The Mirror Empire!

    • Hahaha, I’ve definitely found myself saying “there was a short story?!” once or twice. Sexual diversity or no, this was a really fun book. And The Mirror Empire is on my list!

  • I love being blindsided by a good ending, especially when the author can accomplish it without any pesky cliffes. Unfortunately, the lack of sexual diversity is a common theme in fiction, unless you are reading a book that’s specifically shelved as such. That being said, the world-building and characters sound top notch. Lovely review!

    • Right?! Cliffhangers are one of those bookish things that only work like 0.1% of the time for me. Usually I’m just POed about ’em. That’s a good point about sexual diversity, although I hope with the whole “we need diverse books” thing people will begin to realize that we’re ready for it. And we want it. At least I do!

  • This sounds like a very fun book to read. Thanks for the head’s up about the short story. Too bad about the lack of diversity, but I’ll still put this on my list to buy!

    • It was such an enjoyable read! A nice plus is that it’s fewer than 300 pages, unlike many fantasy novels that can get quite bloated. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Dude I totally loved their bickering as well!! This one took me awhile to get into – it wasn’t until Flybait and Next-one-a-Boy came along did I really get into it. They stole the show for me.

    • Took me awhile to get into it, too! I thought Flybait was freaking hilarious. He reminds me of one of my supporting characters, Flea from Maria V. Snyder’s Healer series. Must be something about guys named after insects that destines them to be awesome…