The Man-Butcher Prize
Charles X Cross
There are times when I will read a novel or anthology because of the author(s) or publisher, or because I’m a fan of the setting, or even because the cover art or back-cover blurb catches my eye in some manner. But sometimes I’ll read a book purely because of the title – and The Man-Butcher Prize from Charles X Cross is definitely in the latter category; I’m not certain if the author deliberately wrote it to lampoon the famous literary prize, but I’m an absolute sucker for a good pun. I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the novel itself, though I thought the cover art was first-rate, but fortunately the well-composed back-cover blurb rapidly got me interested. As a rule these days I don’t read a huge amount of fantasy, the horror and science-fiction genres taking up the majority of my attention these days. But when I have read fantasy titles, I’ve always had a soft spot for gunpowder fantasy and its trappings, such as the inimitable The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan, and The Man-Butcher Prize seemed to be exactly the sort of thing to scratch that itch, as it were. Add to that general aesthetic the idea of a bloated and corrupt empire, an overwhelmingly powerful Assassins Guild, and the titular Man-Butcher Prize contest and you have all the things I look for in a fantasy novel.
William is a member of the Assassins Guild, the organisation that one must belong to in order to undertake assassination contracts throughout the Vitulan Empire. After an assassination contract takes a deeply unexpected turn and goes wrong, William finds himself ejected from the Guild and stripped of his rights to undertake contracts for the Guild, or to make use of its extensive support network across the Empire. Blacklisted, the young assassin determines that his only chance to continue in his particular line of work, and return to the graces of the Guild, is to enter into the brutal Guild contest known as the Man-Butcher Prize. More akin to a public festival than anything secretive, complete with risk-chancing audiences and merchants selling equipment and weaponry, the contest sees assassins from across the Empire compete to eliminate each other in a variety of gruesome ways to become the eponymous Man-Butcher. Desperate to regain his former status, and perhaps even increase his standing in the Guild in the progress, William finds himself not only competing with a variety of strange and bewildering characters seeking to murder him, but also gaining the attention of sinister and powerful Cult of the Sacrificial Lambs in an attempt to fulfil an assassination contract on behalf of a mysterious client out for revenge against the man who destroyed her family.
One of the first things that came to mind when reading The Man-Butcher Prize is that Cross has a clear talent for building up atmosphere, deftly drawing the reader into the world he has built. The opening scenes, in which William is inducted into the world of riches and privilege to be found at the very top of society in the Empire, are particularly memorable, as the assassin searches for his target, restricted by the ridiculous mask and wig his benefactor has forced him to wear to infiltrate the gathering. I was reminded of accounts of the aristocratic classes in pre-Revolutionary France society, with Cross vividly depicting a high society that is not only morally and ethically bankrupt, but also corrupted by wealth and bloated egos. Even the manner of William’s fall from grace with the Assassin’s Guild neatly plays into this concept, played for a fool by an aristocrat and then betrayed and left to fend for himself, forced to find a benefactor who will sponsor him to compete in the Man-Butcher Prize.
The atmosphere in The Man-Butcher Prize is deftly built up in conjunction with the world-building, Cross slowly but surely developing the Vitulan Empire as a deeply engaging setting that has clearly had a great deal of thought put into it. There are some fantastically evocative descriptions of different locations in the Empire that William visits in the course of the plot, aided by prose that easily flows across the page and brings you along with the story. It’s all bolstered by the fact that Cross has a clear talent for delivering a witty turn of phrase or pithy description with a sort of dark humour and even mild absurdism that reminded me of the late, great Terry Pratchett at times. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the central location of Blackbile, the backwater town where the Man-Butcher Prize contest actually takes place. While at first glance, an assassin-run town sounds like the sort of generic location to be found within any fantasy tome, Cross imbues it with an anarchic energy and passion that makes it stand out and once again demonstrates the time he spent working on the novel as a whole. That passion pays off, with every element of the town being entertaining in some element; from the unoriginal nicknames for certain locales, because “killers could often be the antithesis of creatives” to the fact that signposts are vandalised or ‘adjusted’ to point towards particularly muggable areas, it’s absolutely enthralling and also darkly entertaining as William navigates his way through the treacherous town and its inhabitants.
Cross uses a multi-chronological structure, weaving together alternating chapters that show William’s progress through the brutal competition, as well as the events of his childhood that saw him become a professional assassin in society. This can be a difficult structure to pull off without confusing or boring the reader, but Cross does it with aplomb, always making it clear which timeline we’re in and what events we are following in this particular chapter. William’s past is interleaved with Vesta’s, her chapters illustrating how she began as a child of privilege until a brutal attack on her family leads to her father’s descent into alcoholism and her own life changing radically with only one goal: vengeance on those who destroyed her status and family. She’s easy to sympathise with, especially as Cross uses her chapters to show how her discontent with her family’s descent into crime despite the riches it eventually brings, with servants and expensive foreign teas balanced out by a crippled father and a criminal brother controlled by the schemes of a vicious criminal.
Vesta makes for an intriguing and effective foil to William, her background also adding more detail to Cross’ world-building which in turn helps illustrate the world these characters inhabit. William has a wry sense of dark humour for a protagonist, which I enjoyed, and I greatly appreciated that William didn’t start out as some elite assassin able to pull off complex manoeuvres instantly and use a variety of weapons. As an early encounter with a group of travellers demonstrates with some of that quiet, dark humour, William can be outfoxed by a surprise development, and the appearance of unexpected weapons. The above approach helps gives the novel an earthy, more realistic approach that made it stand out in comparison to its many competitors in the genre. William feels like a multi-faceted and ‘real’ person that steps out of the pages as someone who has lived a full life, and not a character who only exists when the pages are opened and read. The other characters that appear in the novel are just as well written, even those with minor roles or cameos appearing fully-formed and not like the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs that so often appear in fantasy titles. The Cult of the Sacrificial Lambs, and in particular their heavily scarred leaders, are especially terrifying, Cross imbuing them with a genuinely sinister nature that had me grimacing a number of times throughout the novel at their occult rituals.
There were other elements to The Man-Butcher Prize that impressed me as well, distinct from the excellent writing and quality characters. I appreciated that Cross kept the plot and world-building distinctly low-key, always done subtly and from the viewpoint of William and/or Vesta, with no ‘grand sweeping vistas’ chapters to break the reader’s immersion in the plot. While it’s a personal preference, I always prefer titles of this kind, as it helps to focus the plot and retain a small group of characters that Cross is then able to flesh out in greater detail. I also enjoyed the number of fantasy genre tropes that Cross toyed with, or subverted entirely. I was particularly enamoured with the fact that Cross made the Assassins Guild an open presence in society, subverting that tiresome and stale trope of a secretive group of assassins lurking at the fringes of society; in The Man-Butcher Prize, Guild members are so well known that they can be accosted in public to request they take on contracts, and even attract fans. Subverting such sacred concepts like this demonstrates a distinct level of original thought, imagination and an element of dark humour that is so often absent in the genres, and the fantasy genre in particular.
The Man-Butcher Prize is one of the most original, imaginative and engaging fantasy novels that I have read in the genre in a very long time, with a fast-paced and imaginative plot that overturns many of the stale tropes in the genre and refashions them into fresh and innovative concepts. That plot is aided by some detailed and thoughtful world-building that creates a unique setting populated with multi-faceted and three-dimensional characters, as well as a wry sense of sardonic, black humour that gives the novel a rather refreshing tongue-in-cheek tone. The Man-Butcher Prize is a hugely entertaining take on the fantasy genre, and demonstrates that Charles X. Cross is a fresh new voice with innovative ideas, exactly the sort of thing required to stand out in a crowded genre full of titles that are often bland and lacking in imagination or originality. I cannot recommend The Man-Butcher Prize strongly enough for those who want to read high-quality, artfully-written fantasy with a quirky edge, and I have Mr Cross firmly on my radar to see what he comes up with next; whatever it is, you can be absolutely certain that I’ll be reading and reviewing it.