I first read Grimwood when reviewing Stamping Butterflies for Infinity Plus and I have since gone through his back catalogue starting with his Arabesk trilogy. redRobe completes the four novels he published before those three books and it is possible to identify certain aspects of his shtick – at least in these early works.
To illustrate hip up-to-the-minuteness we get short, breathy sentences. Jump-cuts. Sex. Hyphenations. unUsual capiTalisations (as in the titles reMix and redRobe.) Soldiery of varying degrees of experience – usually inexperience. General grittiness. Atrocity stories. And violence: lots of violence. Plus enough just-about-plausible hightechery to give the whole thing that SF sheen. Sensory overload alert?
This striving for terseness in redRobe also means we get several instances of “sat” instead of the more correct “sitting.” (And, sadly, there is a “span” count of 1. Sigh.)
As an aside, is it novels like this that Damien Walter and Jetse De Vries among others have bemoaned lately for being too pessimistic? The thesis seems to be that SF was once an optimistic literature (this was of course never entirely true) and now it very largely isn’t. For myself, I think this development is a reflection of the times. In the 50s and 60s, in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars, it was possible to have optimism for the future. Now, with all the resource and possible climate problems besetting the world, it is much more difficult to sustain.
Whatever, Grimwood frequently sidesteps issues like this by setting his books in alternative futures (or even alternative presents) on Earths recognisable to ours but divergent at some time in the past.
As to what happens in redRobe: Habsburgs of the Maximilian stripe are still Emperors/Empresses of Mexico. As historical turning points go it has to be admitted this is pretty arcane, full marks for it. But this Earth has also just had a female Pope (Joan, of course) killed and the plot revolves around the fact her memories have been placed in a soulcatcher necklace of beads and her dreams embedded in the mind of a more or less kidnapped 14 year old prostitute, Mai. Plus there is a talking handheld gun.
The hero is Axl Borja who was once a child assassin on some sort of reality TV show but doesn’t really know his origins. That is, he was a child who was an assassin; he did not assassinate children. That, I suspect, would be going too far even for Grimwood.
As it is, Axl cannot possibly be a sympathetic character – there are few of these in redRobe – though it is mostly Axl’s point of view the novel follows. Early on, we also track the talking gun for a while. (I was disappointed when this strand tailed off as it was faintly amusing, but the gun does reappear later, metamorphosed into a silver monkey.) In chapter one, Axl kills again, and instead of suffering a death sentence, is sent by Cardinal Santo Ducque, the de facto acting Pope, to trace Pope Joan’s memories.
The latter action, and resolution, takes place on a wheel-shaped space habitat Joan had campaigned to have built to house refugees from all the grisly happenings taking place on Earth and it is here that Axl has to prevent Mai, and Joan’s memories, from falling into the hands of the aforementioned soldiery – and where Axl must make his moral choice.
Grimwood’s writing, as you would expect, developed during the course of his early books, becoming more assured, as is evidenced in redRobe, which is a superior example of its type. And I also unhesitatingly recommend his Arabesk trilogy, where his character building is much more to the fore.