Review of KULTUS by Richard Ford

The anti-hero is huge in fantasy right now, and it’s been reflected in my reading choices of late. Of course, when I first got into reading fantasy, some of my favorite characters were antiheroes — questionable characters such as Raistlin Majere from the DragonLance novels I read as a teenager or Gerald Tarrant from C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy.

Over the last few months, I’ve read the first two books in Sam Sykes’ Aeon’s Gate series (which I wasn’t a fan of), featuring a band of anti-heroes, and Douglas Hulick’s AMONG THIEVES (which I was most definitely a fan of). Thaddeus Blaklok from Richard Ford’s KULTUS fits right in with the rest — a hulking badass who seems to be part legend among the citizens of the Manufactory, the smog-filled steampunk city Thaddeus inhabits.

It’s a quick-paced book, weighing in under 300 pages, and Thaddeus spends most of it flying from one fight scene to the other. It’s like your prototypical big-screen action movie, and with it come some of the weaknesses that come with a breakneck race from action scene to action scene.

First off, while Blaklok’s character is loaded with potential, there are some flaws. For most of the book, we really don’t know much about him. He’s a mercenary, but at the same time he goes out of his way to protect innocents, or at the very least keep the bloodiest fighting out of the public arena where innocents can be slaughtered. In the final pages, it’s hinted that he has an overarching goal, but that’s literally in the final 3-4 pages of the book.

Also, we’re continually told that Thaddeus is a badass, including by Thaddeus himself, but he spends a lot of the book getting the crap kicked out of him. He’s captured at least four times, which seems like an awful lot for a guy who’s as dangerous as we’re led to believe, and there are several chapters that end with him escaping one fight only to be captured by another set of enemies who have arrived just in time to pick him off. After a while, it gets a bit old, as Ford ends each chapter with either Thaddeus being captured or a character making some ominous statement.

It’s also worth pointing out that early in the book Thaddeus has to rely on some luck to free himself from capture, but later it turns out he has all these incredible powers that weren’t demonstrated earlier, when his life was in just as much danger. I can’t help but look at some of the things he does in the book’s climactic scenes (which are pretty awesome) and wonder why he didn’t do them in the book’s first hundred pages.

While Thaddeus has the potential to become a more fully fleshed out character in subsequent books, the Manufactory itself also has potential. Just as the speed of the plot prevented Ford from explaining too much about Thaddeus, it also keeps us from getting much description of the world, which I’d have liked to learn more about. For the most part, Ford is too busy racing from fight scene to fight scene to slow things down and smell the roses — or, perhaps more accurately, the cloying odors of the Manufactory — but he does take a moment at the Repository of Unnatural History, making that one of the most memorable settings in the book and demonstrating that he certainly has the skill to interweave description into the storyline.

It’s a good sign that I come away from the book wanting to know more about the main character and the setting — it shows that Ford has crafted a world I’m interested in — but I’d sure like for Ford to pay off my curiosity.

Overall, KULTUS isn’t as good as it could be, but it’s still a wild romp of a story with an intriguing protagonist and setting. Ford’s writing isn’t what it could be — he’s clumsy and repetitive at times, and some of Thaddeus’ exclamations, like this one here, bother me:

The Repository’s safeguards might be considered insurmountable by its custodians, but then again they had never tried to stop Thaddeus bleeding Blaklok!

But overall it’s a fun story and an interesting world. I’ll probably buy the next book in the series when it comes out in paperback, and hope Ford takes better advantage of the storytelling opportunities these characters and the world offer.

TOP FIVE BOOKS I’VE READ IN 2012:

1. AMONG THIEVES by Douglas Hulick

2. THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach

3. SANDMAN: FABLES & REFLECTIONS by Neil Gaiman

4. THE MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

5. KULTUS by Richard Ford