La Horde du Contrevent

Author Alain Damasio
Vote 5/10
Reviewed on 2018-06-26
Read in French

I’ve waited to read this book for almost a year, and I’ve been sadly disappointed. Don’t read on if you don’t want spoilers.

The story: A Horde of 23 (or 21? doesn’t matter) people walks against the wind in an imaginary world where this force of nature is particularly savage, to the point of making life hard, especially when you live in a village that every couple of years is completely erased by a wind storm. This world they walk in is shaped like a long stripe that goes west to east (or east to west – I don’t feel like it matters much). The 23 are the 34th such group sent across centuries with the objective of getting to the (yet unknown) end of the world and find the origin of the wind.

Inside the horde, each character has a different function (though a few of them sound pretty useless, or at least don’t shine for their usefulness during the story), and each has a distinctive symbol (some combination of typographic characters) that identifies him/her, and which is used in the book to open a section which is narrated by the corresponding character. Each character seems to have his style of narrating, even though I must admit that I’ve only found 3 or 4 big distinct ones, a few of them repeated with little variation among more than one character. Notably, Caracole is a poet-storyteller, and uses a style rich in wordplay; Sov is a scribe and the main narrator, and uses a plain style (and I can barely distinguish it from Oroshi the aeromistress’s, or Pietro the prince’s); then there is Golgoth, the guide of the horde, which is recognizable for using argot and for swearing a lot and being mean to ladies. A few others all seem like some variation of varying degrees of faulty grammar.

Now there’s this mysterious rule that says that the horde must advance by walking, even though technological advancements would allow them to get faster to the last part of their journey, because this is also some spiriual journey, along which the characters must grow and familiarize themselves with the nine forms of the wind (the first six known, the seventh (physical) and the last 2 (spiritual) to be discovered).

The premise is great, and at this point I’m very excited. (I haven’t given much weight to the non-differentiation of the styles yet.)

The beginning is very unsettling because of the presence of the wind. It’s like feeling it in your room, and you just want it to stop so you can finally be at peace. I found this part great for creating a sense for what it’d be like to live in a world like that. Then, the horde meets a flying ship, where they’re taken aboard and celebrated. Here the story starts to become very appealing, because we discover that there’s some plotting against the existence of the horde, in particular by some legendary group of assassins known as The Pursuit. One of the members of which, a guy named Silène, has infiltrated the crew of the ship and with a pretext attracts Erg Machaon (the warrior and protector of the horde) into a deadly duel. The description of this fight is amazing, and at this point, I believed to be in the presence of the French response to Dune. From here on, though, it’s been a disappointment.

The presence of the Pursuit is only used in another occasion, during another, highly anticipated combat, but this time, in what seems to me as a contradiction to the idea of supernatural assassins, we find that the dreadful Corroyeur is not a person (powerful as one might get), but some entity without a will but only the instinct to survive. It doesn’t even explicitly follow the horde to hunt it down, it is just attracted by their, I don’t know, aura? – and at some point attacks them. The ridiculous of this comes from this guy being a chrone, that is, some sort of big cloud covered by a shell, a by-product of the wind as it solidifies. Now imagine a combat between a great fighter and a fluffy cloud. I was abashed.

Then the Pursuit disappears. OK, there’s a mention to the fact that Caracole was once a member that infiltrated into the Horde, but that has exactly zero consequences. It could’ve been so great if the poet turned out to be a traitor. But no, sorry.

More encounters and more walking against the wind. Then we finally arrive at the end of the world. There’s nothing. It has taken them something like 35 years to get there. So the members of the Horde (the few survivors) start getting crazy. Until they all die, except the scribe. Who has eventually the chance of getting past the end of the land (there are clouds in front), and goes down and down against the last rock wall in the world, to find himself at the beginning of the Horde’s trip, at the other end of the world (reminded me a lot of Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang).

Needless to say, I don’t recommend it.