A Song for No Man’s Land is a dull, depressing slog of a novella that never seems to figure out what it wants to say. For all of its short length, it seems to drag on interminably before finally sputtering to a stop right when things seemed to almost start to get interesting. It is the first book in a series of at least three, so perhaps that can be forgiven, but I’m not sure I care enough about Robert Jones to want to come back for more.
The story alternates fairly rhythmically between Robert’s time as a soldier during World War I and his childhood in rural Wales, but neither setting is particularly compelling. Robert’s time in the war is characterized by pretty run-of-the-mill WWI imagery and tropes while the flashbacks to his youth are mostly concerned with introducing the story’s mystical elements. However, the use of Scandinavian mythology (the hulder) seems out of place in a story about a Welshman as well as in a story about WWI. I’m not averse to the idea of forest spirits being upset or angry at the destruction of war (that would be very Princess Mononoke), but it seems an odd choice to co-opt the forest spirits of a neutral country where there was no actual fighting during the war. Alternatively, the forest spirits could be a reference to some similar German creatures, but that still doesn’t explain what they would be doing hanging around in Wales while Robert Jones was a kid.
The other characters introduced never manage to come truly alive, though Bainbridge comes closest. Instead, they’re all simply passing through, and they don’t even seem to have much impact on Robert, much less on the reader. Even Robert’s supposed friend, George, appears abruptly in the final quarter of the book only to come to a senselessly tragic end that left me wondering why he was introduced at all. The only women mentioned are either decidedly subservient figures (mothers, a sister, a nurse) who exist only to coo over or fuck the men in the story—well, mostly just Robert—or they are the demonically horrific Skogsrå that has apparently been menacing Robert Jones since he was a little boy.
The horror elements of A Song for No Man’s Land are sadly underdeveloped. The abovementioned appropriated mythology is made regrettably generic, and the monsters themselves are left largely to the reader’s imagination. I believe that Andy Remic was trying to rely on building a horrific atmosphere and crafting a feeling of terror through language, but his workmanlike prose is just not up to the task. Furthermore, the decision to replace vulgarities with “______” is described in an introductory note as a hat tip to the time of the book’s setting, but it comes off as coy, distracting, and frankly confusing as it’s often not clear what the censored term ought to be. This choice might have made sense if the overall tone of the writing was made to feel antiquated, but in a book that is otherwise modern in its style it just feels like an on the nose anachronism.
One of the reasons I read all of Tor.com’s novellas is because doing so encourages me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things that I wouldn’t normally pick up. Often, this has paid off big time; it’s been nice to discover several new authors to follow, and it’s interesting to read stuff that isn’t my usual cup of tea. Unfortunately, this time it just didn’t work out that way. A Song for No Man’s Land might be a great story for the right reader, but I just couldn’t like it.