by James Maxey

Some days the fantastical fiction blender chews whatever it’s fed beyond recognition and coughs out an aberration. Other days it slices and dices like a dream. Thankfully, Bitterwood is one of those more successful, yet rare, amalgamations of style. So much so that you wish more authors were willing to mash up, rather than adhere to, the constraints of certain pulp genres. The novel’s not exactly Dragonflight, Ridley Walker or Reign of Fire, but it does drive its roots down deep into the creative juices that have nurtured all three.

      Bitterwood’s world is an alternative future that see humans on the medieval back foot while dragons lord it from the security of their imposing castles. Magic exists and its practitioners are able to manipulate matter itself, while the technological past is practically forgotten and treated with suspicion. And as for religion… Well, religion is pretty much as contradictory and fractured as it ever was. An interesting collection of themes that should, by rights, pull the piece apart under the weight of their collective influence. But there are two factors that keep everything rock solid.

      First, Maxey’s skill as a writer. His style is intuitive, clever and – when the action kicks off – darkly gripping. Secondly, Bitterwood himself. He’s a fantastic central character. Part Job-like follower of the ‘old’ Christian God, part outlaw, part myth. A figure in flux, caught between his legendary persona and the harsh reality of what it physically takes to be a killer of dragons. The only real problem with him as a focal point for the novel, is his absence from the first third of the book.

      We’re introduced to him – and his seemingly biblical mentor, Hezekiah – in the opening chapter, and then he becomes little more than a point of reference while the rest of the narrative threads warm up. Not really a huge issue thanks to the other characters being almost as compelling, but there is a slight sense of disappointment that lingers until Bitterwood’s entrance proper at the end of book two. When he finally arrives, the revelations from his past add even more layers to the author’s already potent mix of dragons, evangelical preachers, robots, outlaws and magicians. Perhaps Maxey really should consider changing his name to Moulinex.