Irish writer Peadar Ó Guilín first came to my attention with his story “The Evil Eater” in Black Gate No. 13 (see my review here). It was a lovely little bit of Lovecraftian horror that still haunts me a bit to this day. My assignment for March from my local book club (“Got Books?”) was to read “something Irish”. When I came across a discount copy of Ó Guilín’s The Inferior, I was delighted.
Stopmouth is known to his tribe only as a stutterer, a fast runner, and the younger brother of the popular and ambitious Wallbreaker. Wallbreaker is likely to become the successor to the current chief, though the chief has many days left to him. In Stopmouth’s world, there is one law above all others: eat or be eaten. The entire economy and culture of his people is based upon the acquisition of “flesh” (i.e. meat). They hunt the other species of beasts that reside within the ruined city that is their entire world. If a species is hunted to extinction, it is soon replaced by another that must work quickly to establish itself in this savage land. They sometimes trade “volunteers” comprised of the dying or the old or the useless to these beasts for meat. The fallen amongst the humans have their flesh consumed first by their families and then by the tribe. Wastefulness is the ultimate sin. The people spend their days hunting beneath the paneled Roof and are given water by the “Roof sweat”. Their nights are lit by tracklights along the roof. Sometimes great metal Globes will float through the air, occasionally fighting each other or moving quickly beyond the horizon.
Stopmouth’s world is changed the day that he realizes the extent of his brother’s ambition and the jealousy Wallbreaker harbors toward his “slow-witted” brother. One of the Globes falls from the sky and from it emerges the beautiful and strange Indrani. This event triggers a series of betrayals that cause Stopmouth and Indrani to flee the tribe and to seek out the secrets of those that reside above the Roof.
The book is told primarily from the point of view of Stopmouth. By allowing the reader to view the world through his “savage” eyes, the strangeness of the world becomes more tangible. The strange becomes the commonplace and the commonplace strange. This makes for a much more intriguing exploration of the morality behind both Stopmouth’s seemingly savage existence and the more civilized, but no less brutal, culture from which Indrani hails.
The novel presents Stopmouth’s journey from clear inferior to a leader of men as more than just another tale of the “noble savage”. His savage state is not romanticized or presented as the source of his nobility; though the hints that are dropped concerning Indrani’s society make it seem more decadent and perhaps less noble than that of the cannibalistic humans below the Roof. The traits that he possesses would allow him to rise in any society: compassion, cleverness, and an innate sense of justice. They allow him to see beyond the rules that have allowed his tribe to survive in the past and to see some different brand of future. He becomes a leader because his people need him, not because he needs to become a leader.
Ó Guilín has crafted a novel of intriguing ideas and of striking character. The book clearly presents the possibility of a sequel, which I would welcome. Without spoiling too much, such a sequel would clearly present more of Indrani’s world and how (and why) it created the barbaric world below the Roof. I also want to see where Stopmouth takes his tribe and how he grows into a chief to rival his scheming brother. I’m clearly hungry for more.