Review: ‘Baour: Strands of Death’ by Dirk Vandereyken

I have to hand it to Dirk Vandereyken, the author of Baour: Strands of Death – he really was trying to do something different. I’m sure it felt like a brilliant idea when it was born, this notion of mixing a classic fantasy set-up with the pace and logic of a contemporary courtroom thriller. And, in more capable hands, it might have succeeded. Unfortunately, Baour falls apart on the very first page, and is never able to meet its own ambitions.

On that first page, the author lays down the building blocks for the world Baour is set in. There is a Spider, sitting on a Web, out somewhere in the great unknown, and the Strands of that Web make up reality as we know it. All the worlds, all the people of those worlds, and all our interactions are products of the interweaving of those Strands. The Spider rarely moves, but today it has stirred, and its shifting has caused galaxies to die along some Strands. The cause of this unusual occurence? A trial in a little village called Barnsby, in which a man accused of manipulating death is being judged by his people. This man, a necromancer called Baour, can see the Strands that make up the Web that make up the worlds, and may even be able to manipulate them for his own purposes. But wait – weren’t we just told that the Spider’s eyes are “the only visual organs capable of perceiving all of the Strands”? Yes, we were. Confused yet? Don’t worry – you will be.

After this introduction we head straight to Barnsby and the trial of Baour, which is being conducted by the only villager who can read or write, a man named Reald. Baour is accused of having unlawful interactions with the dead; specifically a forest sprite named Ewella, which he is said to have raised from the dead at the behest of the witch Esmerelda. Baour, representing himself, never claims innocence, but only wants to use the courtroom as a place to make some sort of point. He tells the people he can – and will – walk out at any time, but not until he’s made them all question the beliefs and authority that dictate life in the village.

Vandereyken’s decision to structure each chapter as though it is testimony given from one of the characters during the trial works against him from the start. Since we are coming into the story after much of the main action takes place, we have to sit and listen to the characters tell us what happened, rather than let the author show us what happened. We don’t even have the option of riding along with the local constabulary as they discover what happened. Instead, we rely on witnesses – few of them actually reliable – to tell us in page after page of stilted, unrealistic dialogue, that this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

Again, in more capable hands, this still had a chance to work. But Vandereyken does a poor job of building characters in this manner. Instead, we’re given the typical cast of fantasy characters (the outcast witch, the mysterious priest, the frightening outsider), each of whom is saddled with a long, unpronounceable name straight off the back of a D&D guidebook. This unremarkable cast makes it difficult to slog through the proceedings, and the supposed shock of the ending, which hinges mainly on being invested in the characters, falls flat because the author has not made these people come to life.

It’s telling enough when an author blurbs the back of his own book, which Vandereyken does with Baour. But what does it say when, even as two other blurbs call the book “a fantasy tour de force” and “an original and compelling genre buster”, the best he can say about his own work is that it is “a fantasy/courtroom drama/murder mystery/action thriller”? It says that maybe his is the most honest blurb out there. Baour is, indeed, a mixture of all those things, but compelling, original, or a tour de force? No jury in the world would convict this book of that.

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