by Will Elliott
I have no idea why The Pilgrims, the first book in Will Elliott’s “The Pendulum Trilogy” (published in 2010 in the UK and 2014 in the US), has not been on my radar before now, because it certainly deserved to be. It takes what I like best about fantasy and adds in the best of what I wish fantasy was into one thoroughly entertaining volume (and the promise of more to come).
Eric Albright is a bit of a slacker. He lives in London, makes a living in journalism, kind of, for a free weekly newspaper; he’s also a bit of a geek with visions of Batman dancing in his head. Then one night he and Stuart Casey (or ‘Case’ as he’s known; a homeless drunk with whom Eric often plays chess in the park) witness some strange, manic folk (one with a bow and arrow!) arriving out of a graffiti coverd red door set in the brick wall of a train bridge in the middle of London. These folk seem taken aback with the sights and sounds of the city; they call it “Otherworld” and make off with “plunder” from a nearby magazine shop before disappearing back behind the now inert door.
That incident sets in motion Eric and Case’s entry into this mysterious other world – a medieval like place full of humans, but also of strange creatures, unknown dangers, talk of dragons – and magic. Magic imbued and infused throughout the world, literally everywhere, carried like wisps and ribbons in the wind, accessible to those few who can see it. But it is also a world in the midst of incredible political and social upheaval that threatens the very fabric of its civilization. Here, Eric and Case are known as Pilgrims, and are considered a great prize to be protected and possibly bartered, alien and with mysterious powers – and with some purpose that is completely unknown to them. But one thing is certain: their existence on this side of the door may very well break a world.
So what puts this alternate world fantasy above many others?
• It has unlikely heroes who nevertheless don’t break character. Eric is a soft, passive slacker who defaults back to comic book scenarios when wrestling with moral dilemmas. Case is an old (not “older” – old), grungy, alcoholic drifter who is far more motivated by drink than he is by comfort. What they do possess are good hearts and a strong humanistic moral compass which make up for their lack of fighting skills or worldly know how.
• The creatures in the book are strange and marvelous, both in their appearance and purpose. War mages –creatures created as killing machines – are powerful and hideous, but also simplistic and predictable; not to be trifled with, but able to be gotten around when necessary by those who know how to do so. Invia, the otherworldly beautiful female creatures who fly between the mysterious dragon-young trapped above the world and the people who labor below are emotionless watchers who are fierce yet dispassionate, even regarding their own deaths. The powerful Vous, self-proclaimed “Friend and Lord”, has left behind all humanity in his quest to become a god, but it is his lieutenant and confident, the Arch Mage, who schemes.
• Fantasy tropes abound, but they veer from predictability in ways that give freshness to the text without removing the reader from their familiarity. There is the suffering warrior leader who wishes to atone for his past, seeing carnage in the faces of his companions, yet continues to be ruthless in his dispensation of what he believes is justice. There is the young, nubile female ranger who is callous yet sensitive in equal measure; the sex she dispenses is devoid of passion or sentimentality, with a hidden purpose. There are rogues and ruffians and damsels in distress, but none of them could be interchanged with their counterparts in other stories; they are intrinsic to this tale.
Even though this first volume of the trilogy feels like one long exposition, it unfolds beautifully, terrifyingly, at a pace that allows for exquisite development without bogging down into mere explication. At the end of this book, we as readers feel like we know of this world in which Eric and Case find themselves, and yet have so much more to learn. We feel like the pieces are positioned on the chessboard, but we still don’t know what the rules are yet, or what the endgame holds. We have a wonderful feel for the main players, but we still aren’t sure of where their loyalties truly lie, or the veracity of the loyalties that we have seen. But dang, do we want to keep reading to find out.
The second book of “The Pendulum Trilogy”, Shadow, was recently released in the US; the third is slated for a 2016 release. I have Shadow on my bookshelf now, and I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to delve into it. If author Will Elliott can continue to build such a splendid tale in the second book as he did with the first, I may not be able to wait so long to read the third volume; I may have to order World’s End from a UK supplier. But however I end up consuming this incredible trilogy, I strongly, vehemently, urge you to come along with me.