The Mark of Ran
by Paul Kearney
Review by John Berlyne
Bantam Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0553813749
Date: 01 September, 2005 List Price £10.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Being, as many of you will know, a great admirer of the works of Tim Powers, any fantasy that is about (or even contains) pirates, will always be viewed by me in comparison to On Stranger Tides, Powers' 1986 masterpiece about Blackbeard and the search for the fountain of youth. This book had a profound effect on my early genre reading and is surely the book that sets the standard for all piratical fantasy. Perhaps then, judging Paul Kearney's new novel against the Powers classic, is a little unfair, for it is, in truth, like comparing Beef Jerkey to Beef Wellington - the two are made of the same stuff, but the satisfaction and enjoyment they provide is at opposite ends of the scale, not to mention the taste they leave on one's palate. That is not to say that the new Kearney novel is a terrible book - it isn't, but it's not terribly exciting either.
Part of the problem with The Mark of Ran is its very basic plot. A young man, Rol, living an idyllic if remote life has his entire family murdered and thus learns of his true heritage. He is sent, by his grandfather's dying words, to seek out one Psellos, a mysterious mage-like figure living a perilous sea journey away. There (after at first being made to work below-stairs for a time) he becomes Psellos' protégé, along with a dangerous raven haired assassin maiden, Rowen, with whom he falls perilously in love. Events (which I shan't reveal for spoilers' sake) conspire to reveal a dash or two of treachery and the first section of the novel ends with a parting of ways. None of this is spectacularly original and it is unfortunate that Kearney offers us little in the way of characterisation to help the reader beyond this fact. There's something flat about the protagonist Rol. He's remote for the most part and what flashes of emotion he expresses don't seem to rise from any great depth. This shallow ambiguity goes for the other major characters too. Certainly Rol and Rowen do not lead uneventful lives and there are some dark and interesting scenes in which they find themselves up to their ears in blood and guts - but we don't really care that much because they are so scantly drawn as people. This extends to the world building too - I got no feeling of this being a real place and this is best illustrated by the fact that though there is an extensive map of Umer in the front endpapers, I never once felt the need to refer to it. This lack of presence, both of character and place, coupled with plot devices that are fantasy standards all makes for an ineffectual read and consequently it's hard to identify the spark in The Mark of Ran, the thing that lifts it or distinguishes it from a thousand other generic fantasies. This is not to suggest that Kearney can't write, because he certainly can - there are some really excellent moments in The Mark of Ran, great set pieces and passages that engage. But I question if Kearney - in this book certainly - can plot as well as he writes. The best fantasy authors (Hobb, Martin, Powers) sustain their engaging moments for the entire length of their novels - and that's just not happening here.
In the second section, the novel is all at sea. Some years have passed and Rol is mercantile sailor eking out a living on the oceans and for many pages the novel descends into maritime clich's, both in the narrative and the piratese dialogue. In his strenuous efforts for sea-faring authenticity, Kearney looses the reader completely. Consider this passage?
This jargon-filled narrative makes the piece so self-consciously piratical that it replaces any story that was going on for pages and pages. Clearly Kearney has researched his boat stuff, but this is not - or shouldn't be - what his story is about. Rather it ought to be the setting and background to a fantasy novel - as it is in On Stranger Tides. Against such a background I would have liked to have learnt more of Rol's origins, of what it is that makes him a magical berserker. Instead this and much else besides is only alluded to. Perhaps this will all become clearer in following volumes. I hope so, for The Mark of Ran is inconclusive and lacks the depths of the oceans on which does no more than drift.