MONSTERS, MAGIC & MAYHEM
Although tonight’s meeting was an interesting discussion about the evolution and interpretation of a successful contemporary fantasy epic, I think what many of us took away was the knowledge that Edward Cox writes his books on a tumble dryer. I don’t mean he has rigged it up as some kind of wet-towel-powered steam-typewriter, like one of the otherworldly inventions in his popular novel ‘The Relic Guild’ and its two sequels; rather, having been banished to the garage for safety reasons (he loves to smoke while writing; his wife is neither a smoker nor a writer and they have a young daughter), he found the best available laptop space on the old dryer he thinks may have belonged to his wife’s dad. Despite its advanced age, the tumble dryer still works, so is clearly in breach of contemporary commercial rules of obsolescence after three weeks.
I mention this contraption in such detail because it seems such a great way in to the books themselves. Like it, they are big, heavy and well-made, operating according to archaic rules we know about instinctively without really understanding. It is this difficulty with definition that makes Ed’s books unique.
Their heavy machinery with its blend of state surveillance and clockwork hints at steampunk, but there’s no steam; instead, the technology uses magic or ‘thaumaturgy’, as a power source. Ed describes the books’ central location, Labrys Town, as being in the middle of a haunted forest, except that the forest is a huge, possibly never-ending stone maze, so this is no medieval high fantasy. The political machinations are cosmic in scale and morally confused rather than Machiavellian so it isn’t grimdark either, although there is a strong element of gleefully-rendered body horror.
Ed admits that the three books, which continue after ‘The Relic Guild’ with ‘The Cathedral of Known Things’ and conclude with ‘The Watcher of Dead Time’ are hard to explain and that an elevator pitch is nigh on impossible. He is content with ‘monsters, magic and mayhem’, which is fair enough.
Who exactly are the Relic Guild though? Ed describes them as a blend of role-playing fellowship and dysfunctional superhero team; a group of people who are put upon and do the right thing even though they have every reason not to. The source of their abilities is the magic that saturates their world, which affects everyone from birth. The uncanny powers of the Relic Guild are quite low-level however, taking the form of a psychic connection or the ability to sense danger before it arrives.
The danger derives from the novels’ premise that Labrys Town is surrounded by sheer walls a hundred feet high. Outside the walls is a maze that never ends, dotted with doors that lead to magical realms. Problems arise when treasure hunters sneak through the doors and steal valuable relics, which are either dangerous in themselves or have sufficient value to kick off a war. The brawling overlords of this extraordinary realm are led by the Timewatcher and her rebellious offspring, who have used Labrys Town as the hub for a cosmic civil war. Since the war ended, the Town has been abandoned by the celestial; unfortunately something from those dark times is making its way back and the Relic Guild must resolve the machinations of this dread presence before they reach a critical point.
Al compares Ed’s writing to a Hawkwind gig: an overwhelming experience, almost a barrage of sound and vision that works because underneath there are powerful motifs and patterns holding it together. Interestingly, Ed experimented with music in the 90s and even had his own studio. Although the music fell away and fiction writing took over, Ed describes the value of transferring structural knowledge from one form of creative endeavour to another. He understands the place of rhythm in building narration; the importance of hearing beats and pauses to move people through a work expressed in time.
However, where the stuff of music is abstract, storytelling via novels involves the dirty, difficult business of word-smithery and metaphor, as well as the challenge to render alternative worlds and, toughest of all, characters relatable to as many people as possible. Ed acknowledges the difficulty of making a story like ‘The Relic Guild’ comprehensible, accepting that he needed to pull together every inspiration he could remember, from comics to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who; ‘Aliens’ to Angela Carter.
For all these disparate elements, Ed was determined to make his complex world simple enough to understand. He stopped worrying about difference and originality for their own sake, concentrated on the story and ended up creating something that was, in fact, different and original. Also key was the entertainment factor; whatever may be hidden in the text, fun is essential.
As with music, Ed uses different techniques to ease his readers’ journey through the maze. The plots are series of quests to uncover secrets; to understand what is going on and then for the characters to decide what to do about it. Rather than using info dumps, Ed has the Relic Guild find pieces of a puzzle that makes no sense to anyone except the person in charge, whose motives are obscure.
To assist in managing these stories across a series of rich, complex worlds, the story is divided first into two timelines, one in the present and the other forty years ago during the civil war, and then into three books. Ed is thus able to convey the sense that the world he has created extends beyond the confines of the novels, which is both an expected genre trope and also grounding for future Relic Guild adventures.
While Ed does not describe himself as a didactic writer or one with any obvious political agenda, he does admit to an aversion to authority. While the senior good guys are the genii, even they are enormously powerful entities; able to cancel their antagonists out but lay waste in the process, like nuclear weapons. Magic seems to be purely about power, whether as a source of light and energy or of political influence.
Although Ed disputes that the world of ‘The Relic Guild’ is science fictional and only makes the sense it does by being based in magic, there are still rules and levels of influence. The books involve lower magic and higher magic; revealingly, it is the latter where the trouble resides. Ed paraphrases Susanna Clarke’s character Jonathan Strange, who says that ‘a magician might kill a man but a gentleman never would’. We get the feeling that in the world of the Relic Guild, there aren’t that many gentlemen.
Given Ed’s relish for body horror and the dark tone of the novels, perhaps this lack of gentlemanly conduct is not a wholly bad thing. That the Timewatcher deity is female actually makes little political difference on the cosmic scale, both because her maternal relationship with Spiral, the trilogy’s main antagonist, mirrors that of God and Lucifer and also because any god whether maternal or paternal exists merely to demonstrate the conditions placed on life.
Labrys Town and the dripping labyrinth beyond express a kind of celestial stagnation, in which evolution feels impossible, perhaps because it is not permitted. Unwavering loyalty is questioned in the person of Spiral, who loved the Timewatcher unconditionally, only to watch with increasing bitterness as she favoured lesser creatures like humans. The Timewatcher herself makes dubious decisions and shows that anyone who exercises power will inevitably have to do something awful with it to be able to continue using it at all.
Those who understand these tensions are much like people in our own world who control extreme technologies: the contemporary equivalent of the magic users the Relic Guild is up against. In fiction and reality these individuals are able to cause the most destruction, and in Labrys Town it is Fabian Moore, the number two antagonist after Spiral, who sets the story’s harsh conspiracy in motion. Although Moore understands the Timewatcher’s hypocrisy as much as Spiral does, he remains sufficiently committed to the cause to do extremely unpleasant things, seeing himself not so much evil as right.
For all the moral murk of his books, Ed sees good in the characters who are just trying to get through the moment, rather than those engaged in constructing some vast edifice. That he has created one himself in the world of ‘The Relic Guild’ is a suitably ironic counterpoint.
Buy The Relic Guild trilogy by Edward Cox