BROTHER RED by Adrian Selby – BOOK REVIEW
I’ve been hugely enthusiastic about Adrian Selby’s previous work – the enigmatic, epistolic Snakewood and the harrowing, heartfelt Winter Road – so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the third of his loosely-connected Post trilogy should have been my most anticipated book of 2021 (early in the year as it is). Especially after that cover came out, I was expecting this to be one of my favourite reads of the whole year, if not all time – as if 2021 didn’t have enough unreasonable expectation heaped on it already!
Perhaps because of the weight of expectation, and undoubtedly due to wider world and personal circumstances, I didn’t quite get everything I hoped from this book – but I’m going to try and convince you this was a case of “it’s me, not you” and explain why this may just be Adrian Selby’s best and most accessible fantasy yet.
Which, perversely, may be why I didn’t love it as much. (See, I told you it was me.)
First, a bit of background, since there’s more need of it in this case. If you’ve already read either of Adrian’s books and just want to know why you should read this one, skip ahead.
The main piece of worldbuilding you might need to know is that this loose trilogy is set in a world where plants and plant derivatives give humans huge, basically magical benefits, like incredibly powerful drugs or those superhero serums. (Some readers have found this hard to believe, but at least it has some logic behind it, rather than just wiggling your fingers and conjuring fireballs.) A lot of the world’s economy thus derives from the trade in “plant”, and of course one of the main uses is in “fightbrews” that make soldiers invincible to anyone not also drugged up to the eyeballs. Using such body-altering drugs does take its toll on the user, of course, so it’s not just an Asterix-like magic potion anyone can use.
The other key background is the Post, a sort of Pony Express meets FedEx organisation – if FedEx employed heavily-armed, drug-enhanced mercenaries to guard it’s trade caravans, that is. In Snakewood, the Post was a mature, powerful organisation, and a bit of an antagonist; Winter Road dealt with the origins of the Post, long before. Brother Red serves as a bit of a bridge, taking place at a critical juncture in the development of an organisation growing in power and influence. I’m not sure if it’s intended to be the last Post story, but if so it rounds things off nicely.
Background aside, one of the nice things about this now-trilogy is that you can start anywhere – and that’s still true, though (in-world) chronological order begins to make some sense, too. Each of the books stands alone, and each throws you in at roughly the same deep end as far as the world and language goes (there’s a lot of dialect, but I never felt I needed the glossary provided). It’s up to the prospective reader which is the best starting point, and it might well be Brother Red for a lot of you.
Why? Simply, this is the most straightforward, traditional, and adventurous of the three; the tightest and leanest in terms of plot; and in many ways the most optimistic and “heroic” as well. That’s not to say it’s still not distinctly an Adrian Selby book, or that he’s written a traditional epic fantasy with all the familiar and much-loved tropes and tribulations. Just that this is the closest he’s come to doing so, which is good news if that’s what you’re looking for.
This book has it all – heroes you can root for, villains that make your skin crawl, action ranging from back-alley brawls to skirmishes to pitched battle, friendships, family (both found and blood), and even a bit of romance. The plot takes us from castles to caravans, tribal camps to cavernous mountain hideouts, ripping along as it whips back and forth across the country, following an investigation that is fairly twisty, but never too convoluted to follow. It has moments of elation and despair, some of the most memorable characters Selby has drawn yet, and expands the mythos of the world still further – which makes me wonder, appetite whetted, if there will be any more books after these.
But it’s not without its flaws, and, unusually for Selby, they aren’t a consequence of over-ambition, just a few more mundane issues. For example, there’s a smidgeon of “insta-love” about the romance, though it was easy enough to overlook. And there are a few minor characters who seem a bit too good to be true – too helpful, too convenient, too one-dimensional – especially when you’re used to more shades-of-grey offerings, including from the same author.
None of these were the source of my slight disappointment, however, and if not for the burden of expectation I’d unfairly placed on the book after an annus horribilis to (hopefully) end all, I might well have loved it as much as the first two. In the end, a few choices – largely personal preference – stopped it hitting top marks for me, in the mood I was in.
First, Selby makes the choice – probably for sound reasons – to spoil parts of the mystery at various stages, including revealing the main villain very early on. Now, this does provide the book with a clear – and fearful – antagonist, who would otherwise not appear until fairly near the end, somewhat out of the blue, since our heroes have no clue until then what they are truly facing. Since this isn’t a mystery book, and much more an action-thriller sort of fantasy, it’s a perfectly fair choice, but it took some of the fun out of it for me, personally (mystery is one of my more essential dramatic hooks).
Second was that I never fully warmed to Driwna as a main character. She’s a badass, and an admirable, driven, competent, caring person – an actual heroic hero, and to be fair we could use a few more of those. But I never fully understood why she was the one to do all this (with help), whereas that central motivation was so clear and personal about Teyr Amondsen in the previous book, and Snakewood, too. Maybe I missed it, or misread it, and I’ve certainly been happy to accept heroes at face value before – and it’s not as if she’s missing a backstory entirely or anything, because her family history becomes very relevant. I just wasn’t sure why she was a hero, and in several ways a “chosen one”, perhaps because I hadn’t been expecting it.
And I think that’s the main issue; I was expecting a slightly different book, and there’s nothing more likely to lead to disappointment. I wasn’t expecting a “better” book, because this is an excellent fantasy adventure, which kept me up at night and left me staggered and cheering at times – but it didn’t make me cry, like the last one did. I suppose the author made a rod for his own back in that respect, setting high standards and writing books I adore. And this one may yet come onto that list, perhaps upon re-reading it after all this pandemic madness has gone away.
Anyway, if you are looking for a fantasy with worldbuilding and a writing “voice” that’s a bit off the beaten track, but a plot and structure that isn’t as far into the wilderness as the author’s previous books, I’d definitely encourage you to give this a try. As I said, it’s got all the elements of a winning fantasy, it just didn’t burn as brightly for this particular reviewer, in this particularly bleak midwinter, as I had hoped.
(And this is all particularly annoying as apparently I’m actually in this book!)