Sorrow by John Lawson
Drollerie Press, 2009, $6.95, 585Kb
See also my review of Raven and Witch Ember This review first appeared on The SF Site

John Lawson has written two novels previous to this one, both of which he had the good grace to send me for review, and both of which I liked – with reservations – so when he offered to send me a copy of his latest work, Sorrow (albeit only in PDF file format, since Sorrow is currently only available as an eBook) then I was eager to take a look at it.

Sorrow is the first time I've reviewed an eBook, even though I've bought and read a handful before, on both a small-screened smartphone and, more recently, in the superb Stanza application on an iPod Touch.  However, we're straying rather far from the content and too far towards the form here, so I'll just mention that the usual “page count” above is replaced by a “file size” and the ISBN by an ASIN.

Set in the same world as Lawson's two previous books, Raven and Witch Ember, Sorrow’s backdrop is a rich, complex other world that contains more than its fair share of magic, mythical creatures and monsters.  Whereas Raven and Witch Ember were both hefty solid books that showcased much of this world Sorrow sees Lawson (or perhaps his editor) taking a step back into a smaller, more rural millieu: the much larger world outside is mentioned in passing but mostly doesn't impinge upon the story here, a whodunnit that takes in elements of class, intrigue, empire and, of course, murder!

We are introduced to Faina, a young girl sent to the rich and privileged land of Vestiga Gaesi ostensibly as part of her education, but actually as a hostage against the debts of her unfortunate parents.  Faina lives – or rather, is tolerated - at the decadent court of Viscount Palus and his Mercurial wife, the Viscountess Chrysanth.  However, this previously peaceful land is under threat from the depredations of a master assassin known only as Sorrow, a name bestowed by those few who have glimpsed the murderer's woeful countenance during a short reign of terror that has already killed a number of VIPs in Vestiga Gaesi.

Despite the lachrymose name, Sorrow's deadly activities have just now attracted the distant attentions of the supreme ruler of this and many other lands': the exquisitely titled Superbus Tyrannus.  The Superbus, in his infinite wisdom, has seen fit to dispatch an agent of his own, the clever, deadly and all-round Renaissance man, Count Hashii.  Hashii provides the other primary viewpoint character for the story and is a Sherlock Holmes analogue who misses nothing, knows everything, and will cut your balls off as soon as look at you.  Hashii is an excellent counterpoint to Faina, the na´ve young girl who only wants to dance, oblivious to the politics and horse trading that run beneath everything she thinks she knows.

Sorrow, as I've already suggested is, in sheer scale, a step back from the epic action of Lawson's previous books.  Despite the off-screen machinations of great rulers and esoteric magics, as well as the incursion of foreigners and alien species, the action here is defiantly local, not least I suspect, because there's a very 'community' feel to the locale: the tavern, the woods, the church and the palace, it all has a relatively cosy feel to it (which is perhaps what makes Sorrow's arrival – not to mention Hashii's – so unsettling: both are alien to this place, but not completely unknown).  I suppose you can’t have world-shattering events every book, but whilst the story is well told the basic plot of Sorrow feels a little too thin to properly support it.

However, it's good to see Lawson try something a little bit new, even if it isn't completely successful, a case in point being Sorrow's first actual appearance, which comes very late in the novel, and the mystery of the assassin's true identity which is made a little too obvious to the reader, whilst other characters seem at times almost wilfully blind.
And, not to give the game away too much, there is the expected Lawson grim twist – if you've read Witch Ember and Raven you'll know that this particular author likes to play with our expectations and the conventions of happy-ever-after.  This book is no exception to that rule, however Lawson still catches me out every damn time!

Overall, I enjoyed Sorrow, my final reservation being that it doesn't show a real advance in Lawson's understated, but more than serviceable, writing.  The earlier Raven felt like a definite step forward in technique and ability, but Sorrow feels as though Lawson is marking time to some extent.  Hopefully the next book will take that next step forward and Lawson will really show us what he can do, because I think he can do a lot.

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