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The Double-Edged Sword cover

The Double-Edged Sword by Ian Whates

(NewCon Press, 2023)

Reviewed by Susan Speak

Ian Whates is active in British science-fiction in almost every way possible. He is a writer—novels, novellas, short stories—an anthologist, a publisher (NewCon Press), and a BSFA director. Possibly the only thing he doesn’t do is SF art. He has a distinctive writing style which, at its best, has a Gaimanesque quality (e.g. ‘Knowing How to Look’ in his short story collection The Gift of Joy). So I found that reviewing his novella, The Double-Edged Sword, seemed like picking a pebble off a beach—but a rewarding and interesting pebble.

Ian Whates’ writing ranges from space-set adventure (Pelquin’s Comet) to gritty/horror (his Gift of Joy anthology) to grimdark (bleak fiction in a dystopian setting, often violent) which this novella is classed as. That is an accurate enough definition for the opening chapter, where an unpleasant incident takes place, but from then it lightens up into more of an adventure story albeit with a cynical and self-seeking anti-hero type as its chief protagonist.

One interesting aspect of the novella’s first-person narrative is that at no point do we learn the lead character’s name, despite two clear opportunities for it to be given (he’s very much the ‘man with no name’, which may be a deliberate echo to the antihero in the Clint Eastwood films), so I will refer to him as ‘the hero’. The story is set in a generic middle ages period where the fantastical combines with narrative elements, providing readers with a familiar backdrop to the plot. An encounter with a stranger starts to give us some of his background and personality, then he’s reluctantly forced to leave the place.

This kind of story usually has a redemption arc of some kind—think of Han Solo in Star Wars as an obvious example of the type. In this particular case, the character movement is more subtle: the first chapter presents him at his starkest—so we, the readers, know what we are getting—and then subsequent events show that even an anti-hero can, at the least, be useful. And also that such characters can be more complex than appears at first sight. It’s usual to expect characters to change over the course of a story but this is where Whates’ subtlety is a strength: his anti-hero doesn’t discernibly change, but we do see more aspects of his nature through his behaviour.

Ian Whates is very good at feeding in background as part of the story; at no point is there any sense of being told the story rather than shown it. The story moves at quite a pace, easily taking the reader with it. He is also good at description, setting a scene economically, with sufficient information to allow the reader to feel ‘placed’ without providing too much. He’s also content to leave the occasional loose end; these are not significant in plot terms, but do give the impression of life continuing outside the story that’s been told.

The phrase that kept coming to my mind when reading the story was ‘well-crafted’—Ian Whates really knows what he is doing in story-telling. It’s very well written with a sharp, close, focus: it doesn’t rise above, or go wider than, the immediate story. As a result, there is little sense of larger horizons. Even the loose ends are on a small scale—just the kind of loose ends one meets in everyday life: a scene observed, someone briefly encountered. This does have the effect of giving an added sense of realism to the story, however, as that is often how life is. I also liked how the story unfolded; it was logically handled, no event felt forced, and even the key incident in the first chapter which resulted in the hero journeying again did fit in with his character. I would happily read more of his work.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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