Eternity is a long damned time. Human beings have a difficult time maintaining interest in a sixty-minute television program (or, to my sorrow, in a 90-minute speech class). It seems, therefore, that an “eternity in paradise” would be a serious challenge even for an infinitely powerful supreme being to design. Infinite interest requires infinite variety; otherwise, after the first million years or so, even heaven itself would become a hell.
Darrel Duckworth’s contribution to One Thousand Words For War is “Beyond the Promised Land,” a story based on the ingenious idea of taking Valhalla seriously. Scandinavian mythology has experienced a mini-vogue among young adults lately, partially as a result of the portrayal of the Norse pantheon in the Marvel movies, and partially as a result of popular gaming titles such as Skyrim and The Banner Saga. Duckworth is at home in this milieu, demonstrating familiarity with the relevant mythology as well as an eye for fine detail such as period-appropriate Viking weaponry.
Duckworth’s protagonist, Jond, dies young and strong in battle, and finds himself elevated to Valhalla, where he wars by day and feasts by night. Initially rejoicing at his fate, Jond subsequently discovers that these orgiastic pleasures grow stale after the first few thousand repetitions. Not to worry, though—Valhalla proves to be more complicated than it seems, and to hold complexities and mysteries unknown to the lore-masters of Midgard.
Reading Duckworth, I find myself reminded of one of my favorite novelists, Joe Abercrombie. Abercrombie burst upon the epic fantasy scene with his First Law trilogy, a set of (very) adult novels demonstrating a genius for the portrayal of violence and a deep-seated understanding of human flaws and frailties. He subsequently attempted to broaden his audience with his Shattered Sea trilogy, a series aimed at young adults and featuring a setting somewhat similar to medieval Scandinavia. The Shattered Sea books are very fine, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration to them; one senses the author wanting to cut loose with some seriously grim insights, but limited by his target audience. The work bulges and strains beneath these constraints like an overstuffed sausage.
Duckworth has some of the same talents as Abercrombie—particularly his gift for writing action—but seems much more at home in YA than Abercrombie does. Perhaps the most impressive stylistic element of the story is the way Duckworth begins with rip-roaring descriptions of Jond’s bloodlust, and then ratchets down the intensity by notches as the nightly battles repeat themselves endlessly. His protagonist’s ennui is mirrored in the writer’s style, until we too find ourselves wondering what else there might be to be discovered in this afterlife, what might lie beyond the fog-shrouded portal in the Great Hall. Where Abercrombie feels like he’s bursting with secrets that he’s afraid to tell us, Duckworth stands alongside the readers gazing with us into the unknown, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
I’m often told that it’s exceptionally difficult to get teenage boys to read books, that the pleasures of gaming and the demands of masculinity have ensured that the YA market will be dominated by books targeted to female readers for the foreseeable future. Certainly the bestseller lists contain evidence of this. Darrel Duckworth doesn’t give a flip. His work is unapologetically targeted to a male audience. But Duckworth isn’t out to confirm the archetypes of male YA—he’s out to challenge them. Working within the constructs of an action narrative, Duckworth subtly weaves a critique of toxic masculinity, of the whole “warrior code” with which young men are raised. Here is an antidote to such corrosive models of “manhood” as Donald Trump or John Cena. Here is an author eager to show young men that there are—to paraphrase Duckworth--more ways of being a man than they have been promised, more than they have dreamed.
Readers of this blog will already be aware that I have a weakness for narratives which concern themselves with the infinite, with the concept of higher intelligences and purposes for humanity that transcend life itself. My own unpublished novel, Axis of Eternity, deals with these questions, and above all with the dichotomy between perishable flesh and the intangible aspect of human beings which longs for permanence. Duckworth tackles those same questions, and does so with considerable style. His is a story that will stay with me for a while—and, I think, with young readers as well.