Jenna visited me not too long ago and brought me a copy of the second Gravel trade paperback. I picked up the first trade about a year ago while visiting Jenna in Ithaca, and it was fantastic (I hadn’t read the previous short-runs like Strange Killings, etc., but have since caught up to speed). For those of you unfamiliar with the series, Gravel is a combat magician for the British SAS. He’s a tough, chain-smoking, wise-cracking bastard in a trench coat, and he dispatches enemies of the Crown and rogue magicians alike, often in spectacularly bloody fashion.
Sounds intriguing? I thought so too. If you haven’t read any Gravel books yet, you may want to quit reading now, because spoilers lie below.
The first trade is great: the premise is that Gravel returns to England after a combat mission to discover that he has lost his place in the “Minor Seven” group of magicians. These are seven folks charged with helping to maintain a balance among the magical forces of England. Their bosses are the “Major Seven”, a group of extremely powerful magicians that take care of the particularly serious issues of magical tranquility.
While Gravel is away, an amateur magician uncovers the long-lost Sigsand Manuscript, a magical document containing extremely potent spells. With this he is able to buy Gravel’s seat among the Minor Seven. Upon discovering this, Gravel takes out each of the Minor Seven one by one, recovering more and more of the Sigsand Manuscript as he goes. Along the way a mysterious stranger provides him with bits of information here and there, until Gravel has eliminated all the Minor Seven. His reward? A place among the Major Seven.
Ok, so it was predictable, but the story was executed with real style. Particularly enjoyable was the class struggle between Gravel and the Minor Seven; being of aristocratic stock, the rest of the Minor Seven never really accepted Gravel into their ranks. Couple this with their lust for power and tenuous grip on reality, and you get one extremely satisfying romp, as Gravel’s cuts a bloody swathe through their perverted ranks.
At the end of the first volume my taste for vengeance and blood were thoroughly satisfied. I was looking forward to learning more about the mythos of magic in England. Having Gravel run with the big boys, so to speak, seemed to promise delivery of a lot of fantastic back-story. You can guess what happened: we didn’t really get any delicious back-story. Instead, we discover that Gravel is replacing the eldest of the Major Seven, a girl who had been alive for millenia. Yup, over one-thousand years of history, dead without getting to meet her. And then we retread the same familiar ground: Gravel is charged with finding out who murdered her, concludes it was the other Major Seven, and takes them all out. Along the way he recruits his own band of magicians to replace the Minor Seven that he previously massacred.
So why did the first volume work while the second failed? For one, the Major Seven weren’t really identified as villains until the end of the book, so Gravel’s motivation and rationale were questionable for much of the story. Secondly, the Major Seven lacked characterization, and so their elimination had less emotional impact. Lastly, after the bloody but excellent first story arc with the Minor Seven, I was a little worn thin with the recurring violence.
I think that Ellis needs to pick it up and fill in some mythological details in the third volume. We need to understand the role that the Major and Minor Seven really played in the world. It seems that Ellis is rushing us towards having Gravel be the “Emperor of Magic”, choose whichever title suits you best, which will be an interesting development. But imagine how much more meaningful the elimination of the Major Seven would have been if we had truly understood their role in things, if we had gained some sense of their full power, and if we had learned how they were abusing that power. If the second volume had delivered these things, a third volume focusing on unseating the Major Seven could have been a real success. Without this background, though, the second volume felt gratuitous and derivative.