Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
So, God Stalk is the first book in a series by P.C. Hodgell that seems to have a cult following but otherwise is shrouded in obscurity. I can’t remember where I first saw it mentioned, but it sounded interesting. I read the omnibus edition of the first two books.
It seems like God Stalk is a book that provokes one of two reactions: either one loves its rich, evocative characters and environment, or one hates the confusing and vague style of writing that leaves one constantly feeling like one is missing important chunks of the story. Alas, I fall into the latter camp. As much as I can recognize the imagination behind this book, I found reading it more of a chore than anything resembling pleasure—and unlike many books that are, perhaps rightfully, chore-like in their reading, this one did not reward me with much in the way of substantive, thought-provoking themes.
There is so much going on here that it’s difficult to examine the book without slipping into summary mode. I’ll restrict myself to two things: Tai-tastigon and the Kencyrath. In these Hodgell creates some of the best examples of a fantasy city and a fantasy culture that I’ve seen in a while.
Tai-tastigon is the city in which Jame finds herself after she stumbles out of Perimal Darkling and flees the Haunted Lands. She falls in with the owners/inhabitants of a local tavern, the House of the Luck-Bringers. Eventually she becomes a thief, which is a paradoxical position for a Kencyr who values honour above all things. But even thieving in Tai-tastigon isn’t straightforward. There’s a complex system of guilds and guilt to make it all work, just as there are formalized systems for having guild wars and trade wars and religious wars while keeping the city largely intact and functional.
Fantasy cities are hard to do right without slipping into medieval tropes, and Hodgell does a good job here. Tai-tastigon is fantastic enough that it shouldn’t really exist—it’s a cosmopolitan mish-mash of temples to all sorts of gods and a maze of streets that would never work in reality. Yet this very liveliness is an important part of the plot; it’s what allows Jame, as an outsider, to make such a distinctive mark on the life of the city.
Jame is a Kencyr, one of a group of three peoples who are not indigenous to the world of Rathillien. The Kencyrath came to this world from a parallel one, fleeing the expansion of Perimal Darkling. Jame believes herself at first to be Kendar, a warrior, but gradually recovers memories that reveal her to be a Highborn—a different caste entirely. And as she remembers more of her life within Perimal Darkling, Jame wonders whether she is on the right path. She believes she should reunite with her long-lost twin brother, bring him a book and a sword she recovered from the dark—but the more she learns about what has happened on Rathillien, the less she likes it. So she spends God Stalk living in Tai-tastigon, taking in the local culture, and learning to be a thief.
Hodgell’s attempts to juxtapose Jame’s Kencyr honour and honesty with her newfound apprenticeship didn’t work for me. This is just one example of an uneasy balance between humour and deadly self-righteous seriousness (on Jame’s part) that makes God Stalk difficult to enjoy. Every time I think I’m just about to sink into the culture of the city and enjoy the absurdity of it, Jame lapses into another one of her serious moments where she meditates upon the seriousness of all the serious things that are going to happen. Seriously.
I can see why other people laud this book for its depth and detail. Yet these are the reasons it doesn’t hold much appeal for me. There is too much detail, to the point where I regularly found myself getting lost and having to re-read page-by-page because I thought I had missed something (I hadn’t). In this respect the narrative resembles something like Dhalgren in its confusing tendency to introduce twist after twist without much in the way of foreshadowing or warning.
God Stalk is incredibly clever and definitely original. It’s a shame it’s so obscure. But I don’t feel all that enriched for having unearthed a copy and taken the time to read it. Though I went on to trudge through The Dark of the Moon, I’m ambivalent about investing any additional time in this series. For ongoing stories like Jame’s, it’s all about the characters—and I just don’t feel like spending much time with these ones.