Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs is the recent follow-up to his 2014 novel The Incorruptibles. It is a beautifully written, ambitious, and refreshing work even if it fails to deliver a satisfying ending to the story contained within its elegant cover art by Patrick Knowles. The story follows two main threads—mercenaries Fisk and Shoe travel the country of Ruma (vaguely Rome in the early 19th century) hunting the rogue daemonic military engineer Beleth, who is trying to start a war with Medeira (Spain), while Fisk’s wife, the daughter of an elite Ruman political functionary, and her retinue travel to Tchinee (China) as emissaries of the Ruman Empire in an attempt to assuage the Autumn Lords, rulers of Tchinee, after an unfortunate naval accident has caused the destruction of two Tchineese merchant ships by the Ruman navy. They must convince the highly offended Tchineese rulers not to join forces with Medeira in an impending war on Ruma. Yes, it’s a fairly complex situation to begin with, and it gains even more complexity as secrets and mysteries unfold. It never gets beyond comprehension, though, even for this reviewer, who was given this highly enjoyable novel to review without having read or known about its predecessor, The Incorruptibles.
The first thing that captures the attention in Foreign Devils is the narrative technique. Eschewing the grandiose sterility of the usual multi-threaded, multi-point-of-view overarching narrative, Foreign Devils is an epistolary novel comprising letters and diary entries from three of its main characters. The effect is delightful and refreshing and provides an intimacy with the characters that is rarely achieved in the usual third-person multi-POV style. Letters are sent between Livia, Fisk, and Fisk’s sidekick, the kickass half-dwarf Shoestring, via a Quotidian, a magical transcribing device that requires the blood of both the sender and recipient to communicate instantly over vast distances. It’s part of the magical world-building of Jacobs’s setting, and though its skeleton shows through some times—the characters info-dump on some rare occasions—it is a welcome change from the default fantasy narrative technique. The epistolary style also showcases Jacobs’s masterly ability to voice the female narrator through her letters, no easy task for a male writer, when he writes from the pregnant, gun-toting heroine Livia’s perspective: “Tamburlaine [Emperor of Rume] might be able to threaten and intimidate, but …. I am of Rume. This man would not cow me. Also, I wanted a bath.” The epistolary style works great even if it is heavily dependent on the convenience of the Quotidian to make it work.
The Quotidian is part of an interesting world that Jacobs has built, combining magic and faux history. The world itself seems to be a mix of Ancient Rome, Ancient China, and the Wild West of the US. The beginning of train transportation and Hellfire shotguns locates this tale somewhere in the early 19th century but it is cleverly combined with the seedy grandeur of imperial Rome and the secret mysteries of Ancient China to give the story a unique and entertaining setting. Every mechanical contraption or explosive in this world must be imbued with a daemon or daemons to work, the job of the engineers like the antagonist Beleth. Most entertaining are the creatures of pure fantasy that populate this world including the Autumn Lords, ancient gods; vaettir, giant winged, taloned monster humanoids; and lóng, weird puppy-sized dragons that linger in the air right above the villagers and townspeople and blithely and relentlessly crap on them. The plethora of strange creatures, diverse characters from disparate imaginary nations, and the wide scope of lands and travel, all vividly rendered, make this novel a fascinating escapist experience.
The novel’s plot is perhaps slightly less original and inspiring than its setting or delivery. On the one hand there is the fairly traditional meeting of the two opposing geographical powers in an attempt to stave off a war, and on the other is the fairly common “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed” [Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, obviously] type of hunt for a nefarious and rarely seen villain. However, there is enough complexity in the character interactions to make these conventional plotlines compelling. For example, Livia’s brother, Secundus, travels with her to Tchinee accompanied by his lover, Tenebrae, a Ruman imperial functionary, who might or might not be setting them up for an expedition to their deaths or capture in a foreign land with nothing to protect them but the mighty reputation of Rume thousands of miles of ocean away. Then there are the vaettir, terrifying and vicious beasts, who all of a sudden start acting with strange restraint toward Shoe and Fisk in their quest to find Beleth. There are also the “Monkey Boys,” thieves and rogues lurking in the seedier sections of Jiang, the major city of Tchinee. Who are they and what do they want? And what the hell is in the ornate chest that Livia must present to the Autumn Lords? These and many other schemes make their way into this seemingly conventional story, all of which help keep it complex, fresh, and intriguing.
Overall, Foreign Devils is a wonderful read, very well written, and completely engaging. For this reviewer, though, the ending kind of felt as if I rode a rollercoaster to the highest point with my close friends; the car starts heading down, gaining speed; we’re halfway down, screaming with joy; and then someone in the car who I barely know, who we just kind of picked up on the way, stands up and says, “That’s all, folks. Hope you enjoyed the ride. Come again next year,” and the ride stops. Well, I think to myself, I guess it was fun while it lasted. Even in the longest series, each book should have a satisfying conclusion. On its own, I found the conclusion to Foreign Devils to be somewhat unsatisfying, but the time I spent reading it was so enjoyable that I will probably go back and read The Uncorruptibles and then continue the series.
Lastly, for the purpose of our particular audience here at GdM, I wouldn’t necessarily call Foreign Devils a grimdark novel. There are definitely good and bad guys and gals, and the reader can pretty much tell who they are. The novel probably has enough fighting, gore, double-dealing, gritty scenes and settings, the obligatory torture, and shit blowing up to satisfy open-minded and diehard grimdarkers, but it does not indulge in the moral shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark as we like to define it (should it require defining). I strongly suggest, however, that you do not let that stop you from reading this very enjoyable novel. Although I love the ambiguity of grimdark fiction, I love precise, inventive, and entertaining writing first, and I found no shortage of that in Foreign Devils. If I had a do-over, though, I would read The Incorruptibles first, and you probably should, too.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #9.