By T. Mountebank
I began Sister Sable (Book one of the the Mad Queen series) with high hopes. The book’s Amazon reviews frequently use the kinds of words that get me interested in a story: complex, dark, surprising, intelligent. With 75% five-star ratings, people are obviously finding something to appreciate in the story, but I’m afraid this is one instance where I’m going to need to diverge from the crowd: I put the book down about a third of the way through.
To a certain extent, my lack of appreciation for the book is probably a reflection of my preference for a neater (e.g. tighter, cleaner) story. As a reader, I’m open to some provocative confusion, but in general, I like to have a pretty solid sense of what’s going on, who’s who, and what outcomes I’m rooting for. There were plenty of interesting narrative elements in the opening of the book, and Mountebank is clearly a skilled writer, but I just didn’t find myself getting pulled into the action. My sense is that there was just too much going on, involving too many characters that I didn’t know well yet, for me to make the necessary progress to start empathizing with people. Too much, too soon.
My lack of interest in the story may also have to do with my general inclination towards magic systems that add clarity to the story rather than lessening it. On the spectrum of “fantasy as science” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s clearly delineated magic systems) to “fantasy as primordial magic” (e.g. Gandalf’s somewhat unknowable powers), I tend to prefer the former. If I can’t predict what Sister Sable will use her powers to do next, that’s not necessarily a good thing from a story-telling viewpoint. Chaotic, unpredictable magic abilities can certainly shake the story up, but I don’t think they mesh well with a story that itself is already rather chaotic and complicated.
Rating 1 – Skip it.
By Peter Brett
Peter Brett’s “The Demon Cycle” has a solid premise: a medieval world in which demons rule the night, leading humans to need to bed down in well-protected sanctuaries or risk being ripped limb from limb. It’s a clever idea, and it lends itself to all sorts of satisfying action as characters attempt to survive, and eventually, to fight back against the demon hordes. The series also has considerable depth; lots of characters, lots of flashbacks, and an increasingly complicated political environment.
Brett is a talented writer, and I genuinely enjoyed books one and two of the series. Things started to go off the rails, however, in book three, which is where he lost me. I think the simplest way to put it is that Brett starts to lose track of what makes the narrative interesting. The character development takes a major turn for the worse, and by the end of the book, I didn’t feel like I had much invested in anyone, and didn’t feel like I could predict what the characters would do, which is a major frustration for me. If characters seem to be making arbitrary choices, it’s easy to get sucked out of the immersion, and that’s a deal-breaker.
I feel bad given the entire series a rating of “skip it,” given that it started with such promise, but the truth is that I wouldn’t recommend the series as a whole.
Rating: 1 – Skip It
By C. S. Friedman
In Feast of Souls, the first book of the Magister Trilogy, C. S. Friedman introduces a truly novel (to my knowledge, at least) magic system. The imperious and nearly omnipotent Magisters can wield incredible magical abilities, but their powers draw upon the life force of a randomly chosen other individual. As long as they are willing to ignore the fact that their powers literally come at the price of someone’s else’s life, Magisters can use their powers willy-nilly. The only exception to this rule is that when a Magister’s “host” eventually kicks the bucket, the Magister is totally vulnerable for a short period of time.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a writing podcast created by Brandon Sanderson and some colleagues (Writing Excuses), and one of Brandon’s observations that I like a lot is that in fantasy, “the constraints on using magic are more interesting than the magic itself.” That is, we can imagine a character who can overcome every obstacle, effortlessly, with magical powers, but that’s not an interesting story. What is interesting is in seeing a system of rules created, and then watching our protagonist exploit those rules in order to overcome obstacles. In that sense, I think Friedman has a great setup here. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come together.
My main beef with the implementation of Friedman’s characterization of the Magisters is that their whole shtick is about avoiding death (which in practice means being really careful about the circumstances in which they use significant amounts of power). However, early in book one, it becomes clear that an ancient enemy may be re-emerging, which would be a clear threat to the magisters. Nevertheless, Friedman allows virtually all of the magisters to put their heads in the sand, even though some of them were alive the last time this enemy existed, and should be highly aware of this threat. It may seem like a quibble, but it really drew me out of the story, and made it difficult for me to see various characters’ actions as being believably motivated. That’s a dangerous slope, and indeed, I petered out early in book two.
Final analysis? These aren’t bad books by any means, but they didn’t capture and hold my attention.
Rating: 1 – Skip it
By Jeff Wheeler
Jeff Wheeler’s trilogy centers on the young character of Lia, in the classic role of “young servant with mysterious parentage who will grow up to be someone important.” Book one, The Wretched of Muirwood, focuses on her emergence from obscurity, and the sequels, The Blight of Muirwood and The Scourge of Muirwood, chronicle her quest to master magical powers, etc.
In a way, these books were part of the inspiration for this blog, but unfortunately not in the manner that the author would presumably hope. Instead, it’s because at a certain point in book three, I remember looking up and thinking, “why am I still reading this?”
In fantasy more than other genres, I’d argue, there’s a certain occupational hazard in assuming that any given story will continue to mature and evolve. Something like 90% of the fantasy books I pick up (I’m only half-kidding) rely on the trope of “orphan who is meant for greater things,” so I’m typically okay with cutting the author some slack while the story finds its footing and develops into something more interesting. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t happen, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really happen here.
So if you’re in the mood for a classic “coming of age fantasy” story, I’d argue there are much better options out there (a recent example of which is The Shadow of What Was Lost, review TBD).
Rating: 1 – Skip it.
By C.J. Cherryh
The Morgaine Cycle began in 1979 with the publication of Gate of Ivrel, but I didn’t encounter the series until 2016, when all 4 books of the series were long since published. Reviews of the series compare it favorably to the Lord of the Rings, and I eagerly sat down to begin my copy of The Complete Morgaine.
Full disclosure: I only made it half-way through book 2 before throwing in the towel. I enjoyed book one, but ultimately found the world to be pretty bleak and unsatisfying, and that dynamic didn’t seem to be changing by book 2. To be fair, part of that is the intentional tone of the story, but it just never quite clicked for me. Much of the plot development felt jarring; characters frequently engage in activities that seem ill advised, or swear oaths that end up constraining their behavior in dramatic ways, or otherwise make decisions for reasons that are difficult for a reader to fathom. The cast of characters was also quite small, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to “epic fantasy.” For a world to feel truly lived in, I think it needs more than a handful of named characters.
I’m sure there are plenty of other people for whom this series would be right up their alley, but it’s just not my cup of tea. If your tastes run similar to mine, then my advice to you is: skip it.
Rating: 1- Skip It.