Feb 26 2020

Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs

Foreign Devils continues the cowboys and Romans mashup started in The Incorruptibles, a story that will conclude in Infernal Machines. I am very glad that I don’t have to wait for John Hornor Jacobs to write the third volume, because boy howdy is Foreign Devils a middle book.

Foreign Devils by John Hornor Jacobs

As the Ruman Empire strides through its 2638th year, war looms with its nearest rival, Madiera, the result of ill-fated journeys in Occidentalia that were chronicled in The Incorruptibles. Because the Cornelians were in the thick of it, the Emperor Tamburlaine commands them to return to Rume and make amends. Fisk and Shoestring, heroes of the first volume, are ordered to remain in Occidentalia’s Hardscrabble Territories and hunt down the traitor engineer Beleth, who may be going over to the Madierans and taking key secrets about Rume’s military disposition and its command of daemons to a rival power. Fisk and Shoestring have plenty of personal reasons to capture Beleth as well, although truth be told they’d just as soon shoot him on sight and probably would do exactly that if disobeying an imperial order weren’t a fast ticket to crucifixion.

Fisk is none too pleased with imperial orders, since he became very closely associated with the Cornelians at the end of The Incorruptibles and revealed most of his Past, a family history involving exile from Rume and infamy at its highest levels. Nevertheless, for the sake of his new ties he is willing to hunt Beleth across the great plains of the new world, while the Cornelian family takes a fast, demon-powered steamship across the ocean to the eternal city.

Foreign Devils has Shoe again narrating his and Fisk’s tale in the first person, and adds letters sent back via a sort of demon telegram that tell of the Cornelians’ journey, the events that transpire in Rume, and their embassy as the Emperor’s representative in far Kithai. It’s fun, pulpy adventure all around with genteel travellers in hardbitten territory, conks on the head, corrupt guards, a scheming semi-urbane spymaster, demon-infested traps for our heroes, plus much more. And that’s just what happens to Shoe and Fisk. In Rume the protagonists experience how dangerous the Emperor can be, even to his oldest friends. The journey to Kithai brings unexpected transformations to the patrician embassy party, not least to the younger sister who had been such a spiteful viper in The Incorruptibles. Both sets see the immense destructive power unleashed when daemonic energy is released in an uncontrolled fashion. Jacobs writes it as nearly equivalent to a nuclear detonation.

Events of Foreign Devils also complicate the picture of the world that was portrayed in the first book. As little as Fisk wants to countenance it, the vaettir are not all implacable killers, as Shoe’s first-hand encounters attest. Not all of the dvergar are reconciled to Ruman supremacy in Occidentalia, and some of them are organizing underground groups to assert their own interests when Rume and Madiera clash. Fisk is left with a little uncertainty about Shoe’s ultimate loyalties. I think Jacobs means for this to be a source of tension, but I would be extremely surprised if this trilogy wound up as a tale of betrayal between partners; they’re just not that kind of books.

The journey to Kithai is interesting in itself, and for me as a reader interesting also in a meta way, seeing how this portrayal of China compares to against others that I have read. There are dragons of various sorts, and junks, and a scene where the foreign emissary refuses to bow to Kithai’s power. There is also much puzzlement on the part of the Rumans when the emissary from Kithai to Rume, who is returning with them, tries to explain Qi.

Foreign Devils continues the pulpy fun that began in The Incorruptibles, though I think it might have been a better book if it had been shorter and tighter. It is also very much a middle book: the villain is not caught for good, the war is not fully started, the rebellion is still being fomented, the mysteries of the vaettir remain unsolved, and so forth. One of the stories ends with a bang, the other with a battle, and neither is anywhere close to resolution. Time to see what’s happening with those Infernal Machines, I imagine.

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