Tribesman by Paul FreemanAuthor: Paul Freeman
Publisher: Cogwheel Press (2012)
Number of Pages: 209
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
ISBN: 978-1480028623

Like a Moth to a Flame

At the risk of enraging fantasy readers everywhere, I’m just not a huge fan of the epic style, which is a traditional method of storytelling consisting of a long narrative of the heroic deeds of a specific hero of a specific culture. It’s difficult to do well; the characters can come off stilted, the language archaic and overwrought. I avoid it if I can. However, if done well, it can be rich with what attracts me to literature in the first place—pure, unadulterated story. Do you want to find an archetypal example? Read an epic. Do you want idealism? Do you want good to overcome evil? Read an epic. Do you want motifs and song-like repetition? Read an epic. Do you want the hero to go bash in some heads? Read an epic. Paul Freeman’s Tribesman has me ready for some good old-fashioned dragon slaying, monster hunting, and damsel rescuing, and I’m also on the lookout for some more traditional literary elements, too.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “She had never meant to fall in love, never knew what it meant to desire a man, to want and need to share body and soul with him. It burned inside her now, sustained her as she fought the terrors in the darkness. Her warrior, her champion. Even if he was lost to her forever.” (p.190)

4. “Culainn lay back. Slumber was an attractive proposition. He felt tired, weak and confused. His dreams were merging with reality to the point where he no longer was sure which was which.” (p.72)

3. “Let me die with a sword in my hand and my enemies where I can see them, he thought.” (p.159)

2. “He thought about taking another swig, indeed had to fight against draining the jug. How he would love to lose himself, even for a little while, at the bottom of the lcay jar. Just one more drink and then he would return it to the bag. No! Leave it! The battle raged within him. He knew he had become too attached to the spirit. It had become a friend in a strange and lonely land far from home.” (p.48)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “Never lose the fire that burns with you, young Culainn.” (p.25)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I think Culainn, our hero, is going to be the kind of person who stabs his way through his problems. He’s a big, burly, Conan-the-Barbarian type who doesn’t hesitate to slash past his adversaries like a hot knife through Velveeta. In spite of this, he’s no berserker. He’s calculating, distant, almost cold, and oddly intelligent for such a hulk of a character. He comes complete with a mysterious past and a drinking problem. Culainn does seem a bit typecast for the role, but when you’re writing in the epic style, Culainn isn’t necessarily unoriginal: he’s just archetypal.

“I didn’t mean that to sound as catty as it did, so let me explain. Archetypes are wonderful things, really just an element of the language that describes being human. Archetypes are elements of storytelling that represent what we all want to believe about our universe. They are symbols to further our discussion of abstract ideas. Afterall, there is a reason we tell the same stories over and over again—we are really telling stories about ourselves. I want to be a hero conquering evil. I would like to (metaphorically) cut through my enemies (everyday personal problems) like they were wheat and watch them be cast off with the chaff. And it’s good for me to remember that wanting those things just means I’m part of the human race.

“Sometimes I look at all the evil in the world and examine all the notches in my sword and the weariness in my flesh and I just want to lie down and take a nap. Or find a beach somewhere where I can stretch out on the sand and read all day and drink all night at a little cantina with amazing house-made salsa and a mean mariachi band. Culainn is a symbol for all of us wannabe heroes: a gruff, wine-swilling beast of a symbol, but a symbol nonetheless.”

“There’s an odd little mantra that is popping up periodically through the story and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Culainn is warrior born, which seems to mean that he is naturally more cunning, strong, and observant than the average soldier. When he does something particularly heroic, or brutal, or strongman-esque, set off by itself in its own paragraph break and italics is ‘warrior born.’

“I think that is something that could get really cheesy really fast, like a call and response in the title theme of a Saturday morning cartoon. But that doesn’t happen here. It’s more like the world is whispering to Culainn to remind him of what he is, or maybe it’s a part of himself creeping up on him just when he thinks he might be able to escape his destiny.

“Culainn is a reluctant hero at best. He seems to act more out of compulsion than desire. He is warrior born and therefore he must save this village woman, beat up this bandit, and slay this demon wolf-thing that is trying to gnaw on his intestines. It’s like he can’t help it, which leads to his curious relationship with his patron goddess, Morrigu. Morrigu, a brute of a war goddess, is responsible for him being warrior born and is the person who led him to the action that landed him in exile from his people. Their relationship is…strained. I’m enjoying it immensely. I think that if I could converse with my gods on a regular basis, we’d probably have some words, too. Their relationship adds an oddly irreverent perspective to the reading experience that I wasn’t expecting.

“Culainn is constantly frustrated by Morrigu’s attempts to direct his life in one way or another, but I, on the other hand, have always craved more direction from my personal deity. I even occasionally hurl obscenities at Him if his vision doesn’t align with mine, but it’s not terribly satisfying when I don’t hear anything in response. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to appease others that it’s hard for me to figure out exactly what I believe God expects of me, and I have no shortage of anxiety on that account. Being better at doing what I’m told, rather than what I want, does not mesh well with my desire for intellectual integrity, and this inner conflict has resulted in more random fits of bawling while hugging my knees on my kitchen linoleum than I’d like to admit. I guess I don’t think I’d mind being someone’s Chosen One, at least not until I discovered how much legwork it would take to fulfill my divine duties.”

“Talk about mythological overtones. Culainn is literally going into the underworld to slay demons and save his distressed damsel. It’s a typical way to perpetuate the plot, though I’m kind of surprised that this is where the book has ended up. The second half of the book, so far, reads like a detour from the original plot, a way to prevent Culainn from getting to his final destination before the book ends. I believe that Tribesman is the first book of a series, so the storyline may just look that way when it’s not in the context of the complete story. However, from where I’m standing, the damsel’s plight and the necessity of her rescue are more distractions from the overall plot, or more ways to create convenient opportunities to explain the roots of the central conflict (which seem to be coming from the underworld) but do not really represent progress towards solving that conflict. Culainn is in pretty much the same position at the end of the book as he was in the middle of it. I feel like I’ve been led along the scenic route.

“I think that this lack of progress and this detour are a large part of why I’m not exactly happy with the ending. Even when books are part of a series, it’s important for them to be able to stand alone as complete stories. I know, I have unusually high standards. I think that comes from my impatience. I like knowing how stories end. I’m notorious for looking up a plot outline of a book I am reading because I don’t have the discipline to just sit there and read through the book. I have to know right now if the hero lives, or if he gets the girl, or if he finally decides on the Italian grinder over the cheddar and roast beef on rye. Characters are like my friends, and taking my time with the plot is like sitting in the hospital lobby, waiting to find out how the surgery went. Right now, as far as I’m concerned, Culainn is still in the OR and the doctor has come out in scrubs saying words like complications and unexpected.

“Frankly, I’m annoyed. The truth is, I’m not really interested enough in Culainn’s character to wait around in the hospital for him, drinking really awful coffee and eating room temperature cheese sandwiches from a vending machine. I’ve been waiting for a hero I could identify with on a personal as well as a universal level and that hasn’t happened yet. Does this mean I read books mostly out of loneliness? That’s entirely possible. I don’t mind a derivative plot nearly so much if the characters are engaging. I want to read about someone I can imagine having a drink with, whether it’s at my neighborhood pub or on opposite sides of a pane of bullet-proof glass. Culainn is a bit too traditional for me to think of him in that way. He doesn’t have a strong, individual voice; he doesn’t have any odd, endearing quirks. I’ve never felt like I could reach out and touch him and feel all the sweat, grime, and blood he must accumulate in battle. He’s oatmeal and I was really hoping for French toast.”

“If you’re interested in exploring the fantasy genre but just don’t know where to begin, or if you’re intimidated by some other classic fantasy novels written in the epic style, Tribesman may be a decent place to start. However, if you are experienced in reading from the fantasy genre, or if you are already tired of the tropes, I don’t think that Tribesman is for you. I’ve met all of the characters before and I found the archetypal plot fairly predictable. Archetypes, while good in and of themselves, are limited in scope and can’t carry a story on their own. I feel like I kept reading this story hoping that eventually something original would happen, some twist I wasn’t expecting, but it never quite got there. Exotic sounding place-names don’t quite cut it. Sure, it’s got romance, a brooding hero, monster slaying, the works. But it’s not romance, a brooding hero, or monster-slaying that hasn’t been done before (and very often at that). Maybe Tribesman can be a stepping-stone to escort more readers into the fantasy genre fold. I do hope, however, that it is merely a stepping-stone to Freeman’s future, more imaginative, works.”

Rachel Castleberg

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