Ian Graham, |
Ballas is a shifty, ill-mannered, incorrigible, self-interested, perpetually drunk brute of a man with basically no morals and a natural dislike of every other living person on Earth. If you think I'm describing the villain of this novel, you are quite mistaken. Ballas is actually the hero -- or, to be precise, anti-hero -- of Ian Graham's absolutely captivating debut fantasy novel.
Fantasy as a genre suffers from repetition of themes and outlines more than any other genre (just think of all the Lord of the Rings clones out there), so it is quite refreshing indeed to come across a story that eschews all traditional approaches to the subject at hand. Of course, courageous risk such as that displayed by Ian Graham carries with it possible consequences -- namely, some readers may find the main character so roguish and unlikable that they will not consider reading the novel, put it down in disgust after a chapter or two, or grudgingly finish the book in order to tell everyone just how unenjoyable it was. On the other hand, this type of unusual approach, distilled through the talents of an undeniably gifted author, can make for a most memorable experience, one sure to deeply impress many fantasy readers.
Monument is, in a word, fantastic.
Ballas is a thief who roams from village to village in the land of Druine stealing anything he can get his hands on in order to support his drinking habit. He is a big, ugly brute of a man who looks as if he has been on the wrong side of many physical confrontations -- and he has. This pattern continues, as Ballas is beaten to a pulp on a regular basis (but not without leaving a path of human destruction in his own wake). A young priest takes Ballas in, but our "hero," once he is recovered, betrays his protector and makes off with a most unusual of trinkets bearing a mysterious blue jewel surrounded by four red rubies. This object, he soon discovers, seems to have magical qualities when exposed to moonlight, and on one occasion he witnesses a vision of a member of a dead alien race (the Lektivin) seemingly trying to speak to him. His crime (which includes murder) makes Ballas a wanted man, and leaders of the Church send out Wardens to apprehend him. His ordained fate is to have his head nailed up on the Penance Oak (sans body, of course) as a message to all sinners and unbelievers. The occasion of his execution is a truly memorable one, marked as much by what he witnesses as by the fact that he somehow manages to escape.
On the run, Ballas begins to develop a deep-seated desire to escape across the mountains to a legendary land beyond; certainly, he needs to leave Druine because the Church and its Wardens are quickly on his tail, desperate to eliminate this outlaw, but the land beyond the mountains -- if it even exists -- is an almost impossible goal. Ballas has no qualms about killing and sacrificing others in his mad dash for escape and safety, yet he does take on temporary companions and finds a number of unexpected allies in his cause, including a priest who follows the Law rather than the orders of the present-day Church. The character development of Ballas is masterful; whenever you think he has shown a soft spot for someone or backed down from his normal attitude of hatred and contempt for the human race, he does something despicable. The secrets of his past and future are not revealed until the very end, making it hard, I would imagine, for some readers to sympathize with him at all on the course of his flight to safety. Still, I felt drawn to this character, and certainly he was a compelling anti-hero who drew increasing amounts of my fascination and interest. The Church and its minions are far from heroic or praiseworthy themselves, and this helps make Ballas a character who won a good measure of my allegiance if not sympathy. I wanted him to succeed in his impossible but passionate mission, despite all of his many, many faults -- other readers may wish him to be destroyed as soon as possible, but even they cannot but feel compelled to follow Ballas' plight.
Graham does a masterful job keeping the suspense and mystery ratcheted up from beginning to end, making it all but impossible to figure out what exactly will happen if and when Ballas makes it across the mountains. As the story progresses, the reader accumulates fascinating facts about the Church and its founding, the "extinct" Lektivin race of aliens, and Ballas' own past, but it's impossible to tie all of this disparate information together without the insights Graham offers in the final pages. The ending itself feels exactly right, as well -- with an anti-hero such as Ballas, you can't really expect a happy ending, of course, and Graham does not commit the cardinal sin of letting his readers down at the last minute by somehow allowing all of the characters to live happily ever after -- the gritty realism of Monument extends all the way to the final period on the last page. In all honesty, Monument is one of the most distinctive, memorable and impressive debut fantasy novels I have ever read.