GREYSKIN by James Kinsley (BOOK REVIEW)
Kinsley’s first novella, Playtime’s Over, was published by Propolis in 2021. Playtime’s Over is the story of Will, a young man on the brink of taking his own life, who is taken on a journey of recollection and sensation by Viktor, the manifestation of the small voice at the back of Will’s mind. It was written as a response to Kinsley’s own mental health issues and worldview, using a fictional format to examine, and hopefully process, his own depression and anxiety. It’s also a love letter to his home city of Norwich.
His second book, Greyskin is now out from Deixis Press. Greyskin is a fantasy western, a collection of interwoven settlers tales that paint a picture of the colonisation of a newly discovered continent and the fate of the indigenous people who live there, as well as delivering a rich streak of action and adventure.
‘A plague is coming’
James Kinsley’s second publication Greyskin, explores concepts of identity and Otherness as well as acknowledging hangover caused by colonisation and imperialism with a historical fictional approach. Greyskin, labelled a fantasy western, juggles stories of newly arrived settlers and the fate of the indigenous peoples through bludgeoning but exciting stories. Some make you cringe with shame at the human behaviours that haunt our past, whilst some give you hope for the future.
‘There seemed to be nothing but hate in its eyes, yet that only made the orc’s heart ache more for it.”
Throughout the collection, Kinsley confronts colonial discourse head-on, using language that directly emphasizes the problematic constructed binary we find in postcolonialism, as well as the powerful racism, degradation and economic exploitation of empire which created and fuelled that discourse. This constructed binary tries to highlight and assert supposed binaries and differences between people (the coloniser and the colonised), in false, negative and problematic ways (see image for example of said binary). During the academic and literary struggle to decolonise literature and deconstruct this false binary and its infrastructure, artists and writers often confront the language and discourse to reveal the falsehoods it carries. Kinsley does this well, by using racial terminology that would have lingered during the time America was being colonised, but also mixing in language associated with fantasy to highlight the fiction and falsities that fuelled racism and the treatment of indigenous peoples. Referring to the indigenous people as ‘Greyskin’ and ‘Orcs’ are the most prominent examples within the text. The term ‘Orc’ is commonly associated with fantasy fiction and video games, referring to a member of an imaginary race of humanlike creatures, characterized as ugly, warlike, and malevolent. Using this term throughout the collection highlights the treatment and attitude indigenous people were subjected to during the colonisation period.
“is that why you’re hiding him here? Got the Plains Fever? Addicted to the grey meat?”
Pointing this out might make it appear that the collection has an aggressive agenda to deconstruct colonial discourse, but Greyskin is about so much more than this. It is a collection of varying narratives, including adventure tales, diary excerpts and letters home from war, all of which consider and question issues around equality, mortality and morality, or show the positive impact that love, friendship and acceptance can have on an individual or a community.
‘I’m Ellie. This is moonslinger. He’s gonna take care of me. He treats me like I’m my own person’
Whilst there are countless characters, from the love-sick George Buckland to the adventurous love between Aliana and her paramour, one might consider there to be a protagonist, who tiptoes in and out of many of the tales within Greyskin. His name is Grimshanks. Grimshanks is a Ungan, a member of a group of indigenous peoples who have encountered the settlers from the ‘Old World.’ We are introduced to Grimshanks several times, in different circumstances, with distinctive names or titles. He is an army guide, a farm hand, a leader, a tracker, a lover and most importantly of all; Grimshanks is a survivor.
“Do you have a different name? An orc name?”
The orc carried on staring at the ceiling. “Our orcish names are no for men to know.”
“Well then, if Sixkiller isn’t your true name, why don’t you just choose yourself another?”
The collection of, what Kinsley quite jovially nicknames ‘Myths, Yarns, and Tall Tales,’ do not appear to follow any necessary chronology, but introduce the reader to Imperialism, Colonialism and the tales of the settlers.
“he says orcs took her in the night, crept in through her bedroom window and were away with her”
“Oh my! Is that common occurrence in these parts? Orcs abducting young women?”
“Never heard of such a thing. Well, you hear rumours, tales from up the river. Friend-of-a-friend-of a friend, like. Never heard anyone say it had happened to them though.”
Much of the collection echoes of J M Coetzee’s work, particularly his 1980 novel ‘Waiting for the Barbarians.’ Like Coetzee, Kinsley uses his narratives to reveal the fear and lack of understanding colonisers and settlers had when it came to understanding the indigenous people who lived on the land before them, and how this fear led to violence. There is always an assumption of war, of rape, of attack from the indigenous people whose land has been colonised. In Coetzee’s novel, the protagonist explains, over and over, that there are ‘stories of unrest’ throughout the community, rumours that the ‘barbarian tribes’ are ‘arming’ themselves, and ‘the Empire should take precautionary measures,’ as war was coming. However, he admits: ‘of this unrest I myself saw nothing,’ but notes that there is often ‘episodes’ of ‘hysteria about the barbarians.’ Women dream of ‘dark barbarian hands’ gripping their ankles from beneath the bed, men scare themselves with ‘visions of barbarians carousing his home, breaking the plates […] raping his daughters,’ but these imaginings, he says, “are the consequence of too much ease. Show me a barbarian army and I will believe.” (J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the barbarians (Penguin, 1980)).
“The way he pronounced civilised, he all but spat the word out.”
Coetzee’s work highlights the assertions surrounding the binary of colonial discourse in a slightly satirical way (eg. Barbarians break the colonizers plates because they are uncivilised and therefor do not use or like plates). Kinsley uses his narratives in much the same way, emphasising the attitudes surrounding not only the indigenous people, but women, the settlers, morality and marriage. Much like Coetzee’s statement ‘show me a barbarian army and I will believe,’ Kinsley’s collection reveals how most of the misconceptions around others are based entirely on rumour, fear, misunderstandings, racism, sexism, misogyny, anthropocentrism and, put simply, the arrogance or Empire.
‘There is a club in the Old World, that stands on the corner of two unprepossessing streets, in a fading corner of a powerful city. In it the great and the good go to drink their brandy, read their papers and smoke their cigars and talk about the things happening out in the world that has long ceased to mean much to them’.
Kinsley’s work has been described as ‘Bleak Tales, Beautifully told,’ but I would be inclined to disagree. Whilst the topics might be bleak or grief-inducing, the lessons each story tell are presented with a rare mixture of realism, fantasy and historical fiction. Kinsley is a talented writer, confronting topics that are often hard to swallow, and even harder to ignore.
The realism of Kinsley’s work teaches us lessons about the past, the fantasy allows us enjoy it.
‘Ain’t no man ever hanged for killin’ a greyskin, is all I’m saying.” Having made his points, Boheese turned and sat back down on his bunk.
Over in the other cell, the orc lay motionless, still apparently out cold from his rager. But then, to the surprise of the men around him, he spoke, quietly, from beneath his blanket.
“you haven’t killed me yet, human.”
Greyskin is out now – order your copy HERE