Book Review: Paul S. Kemp’s A Discourse in Steel.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, I’ve got a terrible weakness for the dollar paperback bin. More often than not, it’s the literary equivalent of MST3K, in which you can stumble across strange and forgotten old books, ripe with all kinds of crazy insanity.
And sometimes, you find something that’s, you know. Good.
A Discourse in Steel is kind of cheating, as I bought it for TWO dollars instead of one– even still, it was on the clearance shelf at the bookstore, so there you go. I vaguely remembered reading about the series on Tor.com awhile back, and so I figured I’d give it a shot. And I’m really, really glad I did.
Don’t let the generic ‘two dudes standing around’ cover fool you. In a better world, A Discourse in Steel would have a cover by Frazetta, showing those two dudes killing a bunch of bad guys, possibly with a scantily clad maiden or two in the background. Because A Discourse in Steel is pretty much the definition of the Swords & Sorcery subgenre. Given that Swords & Sorcery is one of my favorite subgenres (one that doesn’t get much attention these days, to be honest), this book was right up my alley.
A Discourse in Steel is the second in Kemp’s Egil & Nix series– but that honestly doesn’t make too much of a difference, as I was able to jump right in. It doesn’t hurt that the Egil & Nix series is basically Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser fanfiction– which I mean in the best possible way, in this case. Egil is a big brawny barbarian dude, and Nix is the short, sneaky dude who knows a little bit of magic. Together, they dig around for ancient and cursed treasures, fight various bad guys, and otherwise get into trouble, bantering the whole while. A Discourse in Steel pretty much runs down a checklist of Swords & Sorcery tropes, and it’s absolutely wonderful for it. There’s an evil Thieves Guild that Egil & Nix run afoul of, ancient ruins to be delved into, and even an ancient, slumbering race of snake-men sorcerers. And, in true Swords & Sorcery fashion, it’s all wrapped up with a melancholy (though still fitting) ending.
However, as a book that came out in 2015, rather than something that graced the pages of Weird Tales back in the 40’s, A Discourse in Steel does well in subtly distancing itself from its inspirational material. For one, Kemp populates the book with a rather interesting supporting cast. Most Swords & Sorcery works center around just one or two central heroes who roam around and get into trouble. Conan, Elric, and, of course, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were all the center of their particular series. In contrast, Egil and Nix are surrounded by a bunch of characters who could easily carry their own series– be it the pair of psychic sisters that get Egil & Nix into trouble to begin with, or their mysterious and intimidatingly tattooed bartender, or even the talking skeleton key Nix buys off of a wizard. Okay, so maybe the talking key couldn’t support a book of his own, but it’s still a fun bit.
Another thing that Kemp does well is ‘updating’ Swords & Sorcery for a modern audience. Don’t get me wrong, A Discourse in Steel is still a rollicking adventure full of swordfights and monsters and what have you. It’s just that Kemp manages all of this without the racism and sexism that pervaded the old pulp magazines. Admittedly “hey, it’s not racist!” isn’t high praise by any means, but still. Maybe I just got a little too burned from the last Fafhrd & Grey Mouser book I read. Yeesh.
This isn’t to say the book is wholly sanitized. For one, Egil & Nix run a tavern/brothel known as … the Slick Tunnel. I’m not sure if that kind of single entendre is something that should make me wince or laugh for its brazenness. Kemp also uses made up swear words, to … varying effect. Instead of “shit,” they say “shite.” Instead of “fuck” they say “fak.” And instead of “asshole” they say … “bunghole.” Which, seeing as of how I grew up in the 90’s, my mind went to the obvious place …
Still, despite these minor flaws, I absolutely loved A Discourse in Steel, and consistently kept looking forward to turning the page to see what happened to Egil & Nix next. It’s a straightforward, entertaining bit of fantasy adventure that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it very well. Kemp’s written a bunch of other stuff (including a bunch of Star Wars novels that may or may not be canonical anymore), but the thing that catches my interest is the fact that there’s two more Egil & Nix novels I haven’t read yet. And with any luck, maybe he’ll crank out some more.