Please note that this review may contain spoilers for its prequel, Shadowmancer. You can read my review of this novel [here].
As you may have noticed, I like to find something good in every novel. Even if I don’t enjoy a book on the whole, I still try to look for that little ray of sunshine that made the story more bearable. There was only one novel that was so bad that I found myself unable to stick to this ethos – the ugly, hate-filled mess known as Shadowmancer. This is its sequel.
Wormwood was written by G.P. Taylor and first published in 2004. It forms the second part of The Shadowmancer Quartet – preceded by Shadowmancer (2002) and followed by Tersias (2005) and The Shadowmancer Returns: Curse of Salamander Street (2006). Although it does follow on from the events of Shadowmancer, Wormwood largely stands alone and so can for the most part by read and understood without reference to its precursor.
The novel is set in 18th Century London and focuses on Sarian Blake, a scientist who has recently come into possession of an ancient text known only as the Nemorensis. In this book is reported to be written all of the secrets of the universe and, through studying it, Blake learns that a comet called Wormwood will soon strike the city, poisoning the water and killing most of the populous.
Torn between wanting to warn the people of London and just leaving them to be destroyed, Blake continues to study the comet. However, he is not the only person who knows about the existence of the book. Far beneath London, a shadowy cabal of animal-masked magi plot to steal the Nemorensis. Led by the beautiful Yerzinia, they befriend Blake’s serving girl (Agetta) and trick her into helping them.
Although Blake is oblivious to their scheming, he still senses that something is amiss and knows that he must keep the Nemorensis safe. It is the only way that he can learn more about Wormwood and in doing so prove his genius to his peers.
I must confess that my expectations for this novel were incredibly low. My hatred of Shadowmancer is so absolute that I was firmly convinced that the fault was within Taylor’s personal beliefs and thus would pollute everything he wrote. While not entirely wrong in this estimation, I will begin this review by stating one simple truth. Wormwood is better than Shadowmancer.
The concept behind the novel is actually holds a lot of promise and could have been made into a compelling horror story by a more adept author. A sinister comet (called a Sky-Dragon by Blake, though I was never entirely sure whether this was just an overly poetic description or if it actually was a dragon) bears down on a populated city and as it draws closer drives the citizens to madness. Animals go insane and tear through the streets, ghosts and other hellish apparitions appear to torment the terrified mortals and the lowlifes of society gradually gain the upper hand – suddenly able to steal and murder without fear of reprisals. It’s a terrifying image that could allow an author to build an ever-increasing climate of fear, ramping up the tension as Wormwood slowly descends on London.
This may sound like an exciting idea for a novel but please don’t take it as two thumbs up for Wormwood. It does have a lot of problems as, unfortunately, it does not take much to be a better novel than Shadowmancer.
Although the concept of the novel sounds as though it should be exciting, it is not explored at any length within the story. In fact, the comet escapes mention for a large part of the book. It is not until the final third of the novel that its existence becomes known to the world at large and so there is little time spent building up any wide-scale tension. I would like to say that the time is better spent developing deep and interesting characters but that is unfortunately not the case either. More on that shortly.
The plot of Wormwood is made complicated by the inclusion of too many characters and sub-plots that essentially go nowhere. What, exactly, did the side-story concerning Cadmus, Sarapuk and Blueskin Danby add to the plot, other than entertaining me with perhaps the least plausible booby trap ever (Scorpion trap? Really? Were these really so easy to come across in 18th Century London?). I’m not even sure what happened to Cadmus in the end. I think he might have been blinded but after this he is never mentioned again.
Thaddeus was also completely incidental to the plot in the end. His importance is given in a quick piece of exposition, explaining that he and Yerzinia were working together to snare both Agetta and the Nemorensis, but this makes little sense. Why couldn’t Yerzinia just ask Agetta to get the book? The girl clearly adores Yerzinia from the moment she meets her and I was in no doubt that she would do as she asked. More so, why did Yerzinia give Blake the book in the first place? Involving him seemed utterly pointless. Telling him about Wormwood served no purpose to their grand plan as it seems that they all already knew that the comet was coming. I’m sorry if I’m missing something vital here, but it just felt to me as though this important detail was just skipped over with no adequate reason behind it.
Most frustrating of all is the ending of the story. The entire climax of the book occurs over the last twenty pages, with most of the action in the last four. This includes the very sudden death of a major character. The abrupt ending is highly unsatisfactory and made me wonder if the author suddenly reached the last chapter and realised that he was nearing the end of his word count. The final chapter hardly seems to wrap up anything at all. We don’t really know what will become of the Nemorensis. It wasn’t even clear if Wormwood would actually strike London. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the end of a book and been left with such a desire to throw it at a wall before.
Yet, at least if I can find one good thing to say about Wormwood, it’s that it was far less preachy than Shadowmancer. As you may recall, its precursor was less novel and more evangelical pamphlet. What little plot it did have was buried beneath dozens of preachy discourses in which the devout Raphah worked his way through a cast of atheists and pagans, systematically getting them to repent in order to escape damnation. Although the heavy-handed religious message rears its head in the final quarter of the novel, it can fortuitously be ignored throughout most of the rest of the book.
Yet, unfortunately, when it does appear it is equally as offensive as it was in Shadowmancer. This time, Taylor has seen fit to attack both men of science and the Kabbalah, denouncing both as being kinds of black magic. I think that the general standpoint appeared to be that the secrets of the universe are not for man to know and that searching for answers with only one’s personal gain in mind is just a way to invite sin. Really, the whole idea of this irks me to the core. From a biblical perspective, mankind is supposed to be blessed with free will. If this is the case, why is the pursuit of knowledge such an evil thing? I understand that the novel is presenting its case as being that the search for knowledge and the search for power is one and the same thing (and that power is a corruptive force), however I’m pretty sure that there must be some scientists out there that aren’t just itching for fame and glory. I get the impression that Taylor might be trying to tarnish a whole group of people with the same brush here.
To return to the subject of characterisation, Wormwood boasted the ugliest cast that I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that there was a single likable character in the bunch. Their motivations were wildly inconsistent and fluctuated wildly in each paragraph. In part, this was explained by the fact that the Nemorensis had the ability to influence the minds of the people around it, but this was not made apparent until very late on in the text and by this point I was beyond caring about what would happen to them.
Blake flips between wanting to save people and just wanting everyone in London to burn (not really a noble trait for a main character) while Agetta was just ungodly stupid. How many times was she told that Yerzinia was evil? How many times did Thaddeus openly threaten her? Yet she went running back to them time and time again as she believed them to be her friends. That comet just couldn’t fall fast enough for my liking…
However, it was the angels that frustrated me the most within the story. Unlike in Shadowmancer, where the angels seem fairly benevolent, Wormwood painted them as warriors. Fair enough you might say (after all, there is precedence for this in literature), yet for Taylor the line between warrior and psychopath seems to be blurred. Abram (the only returning character from Shadowmancer) now kills indiscriminately. At one point, he even sets a vagabond on fire. It makes you wonder just what kind of god Riathamus is if his messengers are so violent. On top of this out-and-out nastiness is his endless tirade on the subject of how mankind has damned themselves. For a creature tasked with watching over man, I never got the impression that he likes us very much.
The fallen angels like Tegatus and Yerzinia are a step worse still. Just how easy is it for these divine beings to fall anyway? Tegatus seems to have managed it by a thought. He falls in love with a human and is immediately booted from heaven. We are also told that a fallen angel quickly begins to absorb human vices and turn into a demon (which explains why Yerzinia has no characteristics beyond ‘evil’) but this seems incredibly easy. Are angels just made of sponge or something? It seems that if they can be corrupted simply by existing in the same plain of existence as humans then they’re actually quite a lot weaker than we are.
Anyway, this review is getting long (although I’ve really only scratched the surface regarding the inconsistences of this text) so I guess it’s probably a good time to round off. Wormwood is definitely a better novel than Shadowmancer. It has a far more interesting idea for a plot and is nowhere near as offensively preachy. However, this does not mean that it’s good by any means. The plot is heavily convoluted, containing many plot threads which could easily have been cut, and the characters are inconsistent and shallow. Hopefully we’ll see further improvement in Taylor’s writing when I get around to looking at Tersias in a few months’ time.
Wormwood can be purchased as an eBook on Amazon.co.uk