In The Scroll of Years, Chris Willrich’s short story characters, Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone make the jump to their first novel. Gaunt, who comes from one of the city of Palmary’s “better” families, is a rebellious poet, and Bone is a thief. They are lovers, and as the book opens they are expecting their first child. In their time together, Bone has taught Gaunt quite a bit about fighting, fleeing and breaking and entering; Gaunt has help Bone develop his gift for language.
These two will need all their skills to escape their current predicament. The Night Auditors, supernatural assassins, are pursuing them, sent by the kleptomancers of Palmary. Gaunt and Bone flee to the continent of Qiangguo. Before the adventure ends, they will face dragons, thieves, soldiers, magical scrolls and a pair of fighters who would be right at home in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Willrich’s world is our world in an alternate time, and Qiangguo is unabashedly China. The difference between western dragons and eastern dragons is a large part of the story, and so are the dragons themselves.
The Scroll of Years was a delight. It flows at a fast pace, and Willrich introduces a number of characters smoothly. He sprinkles in the information the reader needs to understand why our two heroes are being pursued, and why the Emperor of Qiangguo would be interested in Gaunt and her unborn child. Using the technique of stories within stories, (readings from scrolls, folktales and dreams), Willrich provides enough background information. In particular, toward the end of the book he gives an explanation for why a hierarchical society like the one he has depicted would have an interest in one foreigner’s baby, giving us a magical reason that is plausible in his world. Most of the characters are not terribly deep or complicated, but they are consistent and developed enough to be believable.
One challenge of fiction is writing an established couple, yet letting each member of the couple have their own difficulties and adventures. Willrich accomplishes this with Gaunt very well, by separating the couple in a way that makes sense as the story unfolds.
All of this is swept along on Willrich’s silken prose, which is at its most poignant when Bone thinks of his love:
Gaunt had said that the stare of a dragon tore away pretense, revealing a naked soul. Bone knew that in this pool, he saw himself as a dragon would. He saw that he was but a bright, irrelevant fluttering thing, a torn feather on the wind, lacking as he did the weight of Gaunt’s hand.
Gaunt is a strong woman who loves Bone but does not rely on him to solve all her problems.
It was a real bonus, reading this, to find several strong and capable women, not just Gaunt, but Lightning Bug, Next-One-a-Boy and even Exceedingly Accurate Wu. Wu is a villain, but I felt like I knew her. There’s a lot there to admire, even as she plots the deaths of our principles.
There is another bonus in this book. At the end, the publisher has included “The Thief With Two Deaths,” the first published Gaunt and Bone short story.
I loved the prose and I loved the use of stories within stories. The dragons were enigmatic and beautiful. There was just enough danger. To polish this all off, The Scroll of Years has a lovely cover. I know the cover doesn’t matter, but when you really like the book, isn’t it great when the cover’s great too? This one, done in blues and greens with accents of red and orange, playing to the Chinese theme with the lanterns and temple dogs, was the perfect wrapping on a precious gift.