Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Scar, by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko

A scoundrel suffers richly-deserved retribution, then has to earn redemption, in this Russian literary fantasy novel.

The Scar

Tor, 2012, 336 pages (English translation was published in 2012; original Russian novel was published in 1996.)

Reaching far beyond sword and sorcery, The Scar is a story of two people torn by disaster, their descent into despair, and their re-emergence through love and courage.

Sergey and Marina Dyachenko mix dramatic scenes with romance, action and wit, in a style both direct and lyrical. Written with a sure artistic hand, The Scar is the story of a man driven by his own feverish demons to find redemption and the woman who just might save him. Egert is a brash, confident member of the elite guards and an egotistical philanderer. But after he kills an innocent student in a duel, a mysterious man known as “The Wanderer” challenges Egert and slashes his face with his sword, leaving Egert with a scar that comes to symbolize his cowardice. Unable to end his suffering by his own hand, Egert embarks on an odyssey to undo the curse and the horrible damage he has caused, which can only be repaired by a painful journey down a long and harrowing path.

Plotted with the sureness of Robin Hobb and colored with the haunting and ominous imagination of Michael Moorcock, The Scar tells a story that cannot be forgotten.

There are apparently quite a few SF&F novels that are best-sellers in Russia but never get translated into English. (Personally, I'd really like to read the Tanya Grotter books, but they're unlikely to ever be published in English for obvious reasons.)

Sergey and Marina Dyachenko have quite a long list of published novels, but only in 2012 did Tor bring the first English translation to the U.S., with The Scar (originally published in 1997 as Шрам).

Go buy it so they'll publish more.

The protagonist of The Scar is a cocksure, swaggering Lieutenant of the Guard named Egert Soll. He's handsome, strong, athletic, the best at everything, beloved by his friends and the entire town, a dashing hero and a true man's man. He's also a callous, philandering, egotistical bully with barely a redeeming bone in his body. While not truly evil, he is devoid of introspection, empathy, or consideration. He lives to fight, drink, show off, and get laid. He is, in short, an enormous dick in every sense of the word.

Egert Soll is Gaston

Egert Soll is pretty much this guy.

The first few chapters establish Egert in all his braggadocious glory, winning duels, hazing his friends, banging the wives of every man in town, and making everyone envious of him while the reader waits for him to get some kind of come-uppance.

Then a young student named Dinar and his beautiful fiancee Toria come to town. They're researching some historical matter that Egert couldn't care less about — all he sees is a beautiful woman in the company of a pencil-necked geek; the fact that she's attached to any dick but his is a crime against nature that will not stand, and so he goes about "wooing" her. And she refuses him, politely but unambiguously, with not even a flicker of interest. And it becomes clear that she is actually in love with her bookish nerd of a boyfriend. This practically drives Egert into a frenzy; he has never heard the word "no" in his life and his ego can't take it. When Toria goes from brushing off his seduction attempts to flatly rejecting his blatant propositions, he turns on Dinar and heaps abuse and insults on him, until finally the poor guy snaps and challenges Egert to a duel. Which is of course, exactly what Egert wanted and ends exactly the way you'd expect.

At this point, Egert has gone from annoying to despicable. As a reader, you really, really want someone bigger and badder to come along and knock his dick in the dirt. And someone does. A mysterious mage known as The Wanderer appears in a tavern, calls Egert a coward, challenges him, and in the subsequent duel, completely p0wns him and inflicts a scar on his face which turns out to be a horrible curse: Egert Soll is afflicted with cowardice.

Imagine Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast, being the one who turns into the Beast, and then having to redeem himself, and that's kind of who Egert is.

The best part of this book is the psychological depth. I casually referred to this as a "Dostoevskyan swords & sorcery" novel, but the main storyline plumbs both Egert and Toria's psyches; Egert as he must cope with a debilitating curse that has turned him into a shivering, cowering wretch, and Toria as she is confronted with the man Egert has become and must come to terms with the fact that he is and is not the same man who killed her fiance. This is a story of redemption, and a romance (!), but the two of them (especially Egert) have to earn every bit of it. Egert's cowardice, his despair, his complete inability to overcome his terror or even end his own life, actually makes you feel sorry for him despite all the things he's done. But the moral lesson is not delivered to him easily or quickly. Of course he wants to get rid of the curse and eventually he becomes dimly aware of why he's being punished, but it's still a long, hard slog through self-pity and craven ignorance before he sees even a glimmer of hope, and every time he thinks things might get better, he gets knocked down again. I thought the authors would have to put Egert through one hell of an ordeal to make me believe in his redemption, but by the end, they (and Egert) won me over.

The moody, wintry setting is a loosely-drawn late-medieval/early Enlightenment vaguely European fantasy world. Magic exists but it's rare and mysterious and not something people think about day to day. People worship gods but they may or may not be real. There is indeed something very "Russian" about this book, even if the setting itself doesn't seem intended to be a fantasy Russia necessarily. There are a few fights and a bit of understated magic, and at the very end, with the confrontation with the followers of the Order of Lash, a plot that runs more to high fantasy (and a bit of dark fantasy at that). But the real confrontation, and Egert's moment of heroism and redemption, takes place in a courtroom.

This all has a rather traditional fairy tale feel. It's not particularly original, but much like The Name of the Wind, it's the way in which the authors tell the story, a cracking good read with characters who get plenty of description and a thorough fleshing out of their personalities, from the unfortunate Dinar, Egert's erstwhile best friend and later tormentor Carver, and Toria's father, Dean Luayan, a mage who didn't quite make the cut as an archmage but who gets his own moment to shine, that keeps you reading with interest.

I felt the translation was very good; I cannot judge the writing in the original Russian, but the English version evoked for me shades of Gene Wolfe, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock. And Dostoevsky. And maybe a little bit of Lovecraft.

The Scar is (according to Wikipedia) the second in a sequence of books making reference to the same setting and characters, but it's very much a stand-alone novel; I wouldn't have known if I hadn't Googled it that it's the second in a series. I would love to see more of the Dyachenkos' work translated.

Poll #1896777 The Scar

Have you read The Scar?

Yes - in Russian!
No, but now I want to.
No, and I don't want to.

Verdict: Technically it's a swords & sorcery novel, but The Scar is also literary fantasy, not just a genre potboiler, and it deserves more serious recognition. These characters have real emotions: grief, guilt, fear, bravery, regret, uncertainty, and love, all felt deeply and described against a brooding, menacing background. The story hits a peak at the climax. More translations, please!

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy, highly recommended, marina and sergey dyachenko, reviews

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