Monday, October 4, 2010

The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood

I absolutely loved Gary Blackwood's Shakespeare Stealer trilogy. It was so brilliant, in fact, that I dug around online until I found a similar book by Blackwood, The Year of the Hangman. It's set during the American Revolution. If anyone could make me interested in this otherwise yawn-inducing, elementary-school-social-studies-ruined-it-for-me slice of history, I figured it would be Blackwood.

Yeah. Well. I figured wrong. The book is actually an alternate history, in which George Washington was captured by the British and the revolution fizzled. That ought to be interesting. Unfortunately, the main character is fifteen-year-old Creighton Brown, a British subject sent to the colonies against his will, and he's an unlikable little shit. Since he spends the entire first half of the book being arrogant, whiny, offensive, and rude, I couldn't warm up to him even after he started remembering to thank people for saving his life.

Quite apart from the main character, the story itself feels unfocused. Even after Creighton sees the error of his ways and begins to sympathize with the poor oppressed Americans, he doesn't really have a purpose. He helps Benjamin Franklin with his printing press, he meets Benedict Arnold, he hears rumors of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but he doesn't have anything much to do. He's repeatedly rescued from peril by other characters. I can only conclude that he's in the story so that he can observe it for us.

The writing is okay, but it's not nearly at the level I expected. There's a lot of telling-not-showing dropped in here and there, especially in the first half of the book. For instance: this passage from page 82, which comes out of nowhere and is apropos of nothing: "Creighton's mother was fond of telling anyone who would listen that she had always been good to her son, but what she called kindness was really indulgence. She had given him everything he wanted and withheld the one thing he really needed--her affection." If this had been Creighton musing on his past in a moment of reflection, I could have swallowed it a little easier, but it's not. Creighton's still in full-on asshole mode at this point. That paragraph is the author telling us something that he couldn't be bothered to show instead.

I'd be remiss also if I didn't point out the whiteness of the book. Slavery is only mentioned in passing, no one in the story keeps slaves, Creighton is afraid of savage Indians but doesn't see any, no one drops even a hint of a racial slur, and there are no characters in the story who aren't white (presumably--no one's skin color is described). It's as though people of color don't really exist in this version of history.

I was disappointed in this one. At least The Shakespeare Stealer and its sequels are worth reading.

B&N link

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