John Hornor Jacobs doesn’t have much time to sip wine from plastic cups, mingle with the literati, or ponder the state of literary affairs, because his agent sold eight books in a single year last year, and he’s been hustling to get those contracts fulfilled ever since. Jacobs, a Little Rock native and Central High graduate, will return to the Arkansas Literary Festival this month to make up for it, his first time back at the event since 2011.
His most recent novel, “The Incorruptibles,” is the first book in a trilogy and will be released on paperback later this year. The second book is titled “Foreign Devils” and is complete and will be released in the UK in September and in the US in 2016. He’s already begun work on the third, tentatively titled “Infernal Machines.”
“The Incorruptibles” is a speculative fiction lover’s dream. The narrator is Shoe, short for Shoestring; he’s part dvergar (a type of dwarf), on his mother’s side, which allows him to have night vision; however, there’s also a certain amount of harassment he has to endure as a result of his hybrid composition. He and his compatriot, Fisk, who is entirely human, are hired to protect The Cornelian, an ambling water vessel powered off the energy of demons. The Cornelian’s chief cargo is Senator Cornelius, the governor of the Territories, and his family. The Senator’s household is composed of a who’s who of one-percent bratty privilege. In fact, one of the sons looks on unworriedly when his father is severely wounded early in the novel: “Even though this young man showed great sense and a pleasant demeanor,” Jacobs writes, “he clearly was not overly stressed by his father’s grievous wounds. But Rumans are a strange bunch, the nobles concerned with their desires and not much else. They just don’t jump the same way as normal folk.” Also on board is a mysterious woman who will eventually come into play in a grander role when the forces of politics and power collide. When she’s kidnapped by gruesome elf-like creatures called “stretchers”, the gun-slinging duo set out to get her back.
The morbid danger that Shoe and Fisk regularly encounter is part and parcel of their existence. For example, Fisk casually explains the risks they face: “I reckon the vaettir’re gonna go on the warpath. Not because of some territorial nonsense regarding aurochs. No. Most likely, just because they don’t like humans and enjoy killing us.” Although Shoe and Fisk must rely on each other for their very survival, Shoe still struggles to fully understand his partner. He knows the cursory details of his life, but not much else. When the two buddies first meet Livia aboard The Cornelian, an unspoken understanding occurs between Fisk and Livia, which Shoe finds baffling. “Now, I’m not the sharpest tack, but I knew I had missed something and that was a tad irksome, that this woman – granted, this highborn, highly educated woman – could discern in moments something about my partner that I hadn’t figured out in more than a decade. But there wasn’t much to do about it then.”
Many of the various fantastical creatures and species are clearly representations of historical groups, whether it’s indigenous Indians, or Roman society. Jacobs works in literary double-time sprinkling in distinct allusions to the divide between the wealthy and everyone else and themes of discrimination, in addition to skillfully governing the swelling plot. But plot is really the third course of this fictional spread, especially considering this is the first of a trilogy and “The Incorruptibles” does much more work in creating this world for the reader and establishing the various characters and setting; the ultimate clashes will surely occur in the subsequent novels. Before the plot fully cranks into motion, we are immediately swept up by the voice of Shoe, who is our trusted guide through this uncanny world. It’s probable that most writers can be taught basic dramatic structure and aptly construct a believable narrative, but it’s a rare writer who has the unconscious and unteachable talent for pure storytelling. In many ways, “The Incorruptibles” better recalls the Mark Twain of “A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,” than it does George R.R. Martin or any other fantastical world-building luminary, especially for readers from these parts who will instantly recognize Shoe as a fictional descendant of the pair who embarked on a voyage down the Mississippi, or the mismatched duo riding out into the inhospitable wilderness of the Indian territories.
When the fiction shelves are too often stocked with novels in which virtuous mimicry seems to be the literary safe passage of the day, it’s invigorating to discover John Hornor Jacobs’s wholly original and deeply imaginative voice.
Jacobs appears alongside Karen Akins 10 a.m. Saturday, April 25, in Room 124 of the Arkansas Studies Institude Building.