Saturday, 3 December 2011

Review: 'Stormfront' by F K Wallace

This is the second part of the 'Stormwatcher' trilogy, and starts off pretty much where part one ended. There is the usual problem with follow-on books of picking up the story again. The characters were easy enough - some were very memorable and for the rest there were deftly placed shorthand reminders - but the politics was a different matter. Dispute with Gault? What was that all about? Sometimes it would be nice if authors gave a helpful two-page summary at the start of the book, as Tolkien did. Here the backstory is scattered all over the book, so some of it came a bit late in the day - the book was almost over before there was a reminder about Carsarrion, for example.

The fallout from book one is the initial focus of the story, and this is largely centred on the two romantic pairings - Ketten and Aravir, and Caedun and Merrell. Both of them started off in difficult, not to say traumatic, circumstances, and now they have to come to terms with the past and decide how they want to move forward. For Ketten and Aravir, both imprisoned and sick, in their different ways, married on an emotional impulse, the problem is in adapting to a normal married life. With Caedun and Merrell, he is the king's bard and closest friend, she is a former slave who was abducted, raped and beaten, and is widely despised, creating a gulf between them.

It is difficult to do this sort of thing well, and fantasy authors are often particularly bad at it. The romance is often bolted on as an afterthought to the main wizardy or sword-wielding aspects, and the (female) love interest becomes subservient to the all-action male. Alternatively, there are entire chapters of hand-wringing over the flimsiest little difficulty. It's not easy to create a relationship which builds in a natural way, but with enough meaningful obstacles to create some real 'will they/won't they' tension.

Wallace, however, does this rather well. The romantic elements of the first book were a minor part of the plot, but were nicely handled, and here she makes all the four characters act in understandable and perfectly believable ways. Ketten and Aravir inch to an understanding, while Caedun and Merrell tiptoe round each other and lurch nearer and then further away, before a crisis forces the issue. Rordan's reactions are realistic, too, and I very much liked that when Merrell was ill, Caedun took her to his own family at the coast to recover. It's all too easy for authors to get swept up in the current part of the tale, so it's nice to find one who remembers where her characters came from. My only complaint is that after such a traumatic experience, Merrell is very quick to find sex enjoyable. But this is fantasy, I suppose.

But if the love affairs are beautifully believable, there are other character aspects which are much less so. The worst of these is Sedeth. Now I daresay there are plot-related reasons for what becomes of him (I don't want to give too much away by going into details here), but for me it was too much of a stretch, I simply don't believe it. It's not even that it was too quick, I just find it impossible. The physical issues, yes, but the psychological? No. Not without magic, anyway.

The first third of the book is taken up with re-establishing the characters, filling in odd bits of the plot and tidying up the leftovers from the previous book. After that, there's a shift of pace as new characters are introduced and we begin to get to the heart of things. Many of the new characters have a sameness to them - this or that child (or adult, but it's mostly a child) suffering abuse is rescued by one or another main character, and taken off to somewhere or other. Quite a number of plot points hinge on someone being extremely cruel to someone else, for no obvious reason. Of course, this sort of thing does happen in the real world, and in some societies such behaviour is endemic, especially against certain races (or women), and the reasons may be very complex, but to my mind fantasy writers need to show clearly why this happens within the context of the story. It just doesn't feel natural to me to find so many otherwise ordinary people being so relentlessly cruel. I feel that Wallace doesn't quite get this right in all cases, and sometimes it feels like just a rather clunky way to introduce a character. And sometimes the rescue teeters on the edge of sentimentality. And to be honest, it does get a bit tedious to have so many characters bravely trying to overcome their dreadful past. They tended to merge together in my mind at first, and when they were in danger, it's not as affecting as it would be for a long-established character.

The created world is rather unoriginal. It's the usual pseudo-medieval low-technology setting, with kingdoms and dukes and swords and taverns and whores and all the rest of it. But the different kingdoms each have their own unique flavour - each one has a different approach to slavery, poverty, education, medicine, religion and so on. And there are elves and magical creatures in the mix, not to mention warring gods. There is nothing terribly wrong with any of this, and the different regions are nicely differentiated. I like the sound of Holt, where younger sons and daughters of the nobility routinely go into the army. And there are some intriguing throwaway lines - like Asra being called De'Mestre, and references to the 'old language' - which add some welcome depth to the setting.

Elves are a bit out of fashion these days, but they still work well as a shorthand for 'another race' - sort of the same, but different - without the bother of creating one from scratch. These elves are not the twee, whimsical version seen in 'The Hobbit', nor the immortals on a higher plane, seen in 'Lord of the Rings'. These are just - well, different, not better or worse than humans. I rather liked them. Or maybe I just haven't read enough fantasy to be jaded by them, who knows.

The plot, and the backstory underpinning it, is becoming clearer now, in the sense that it's more obvious what is happening (or is going to happen) but it still isn't clear why, at least not to me. In particular, there are now several Seriously Bad Guys who are planning to destroy the world or civilisation (or something), but I have no idea what their motives are. This is always an issue with fantasy - is character X just irredeemably evil, and if not, what does he (or she) hope to get out of this? Surely there has to be more to it than a simple desire to rule the world. Not sure why gods do it, mind you. Who knows why gods do anything? But humans (or elves) really need to have a clear motivation for what they do.

The magic system is another aspect that's not overwhelmingly original, but is still rather well done. There are mages who have innate powers and they need to be trained to achieve their full potential. There are no chants or magic wands (thank goodness), just an inner force which can be harnessed in various ways, and such power comes with its own costs. I loved the descriptions of magic being used, particularly when it was all about what the user experienced. Magic really came to the fore in this book, being an important part of the plot, and the author cleverly showed the uncertainty involved in it - both in knowing how to achieve an objective, and then to find the strength to sustain it.

This is not an all-action book. There are no big battles. The political manoeuvrings are mostly off-stage. There are a few skirmishes, but they mainly serve to ping one or other main character with an arrow to create a little 'will they survive?' tension and an opportunity for angst and/or bonding. It got a little repetitive. Some other quibbles: there were several multi-year time jumps, and I quickly lost track of dates and ages. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Castle and Taarhan, and sometimes I wasn't sure why. There were a few typos and oddities, but not many. I could have done with some foreshadowing of the place where Sild was hidden (if it was there, I missed it). But these are minor criticisms.

What Wallace does well is characters and their interactions, and that's what this book is all about. Where the first part of the trilogy was mostly Caedun, this one focuses on Tiel. Now Tiel was not a particularly inspiring person to start with - he came across to me as a tediously whinging teenager - but in this book he becomes a truly deep and complex character. He grows into his abilities, and learns to live with his past (and future). He still has a temper, is inarticulate and makes stupid mistakes, but he begins at last to show real maturity. It is rare to find this kind of development in a character, where you can understand not only what he is but exactly why, but Wallace pulls this off brilliantly.

I enjoyed this book even better than the first. Despite the world-threatening events going on in the background, the focus was on much more intimate matters - families and how they work, friendship, and fathers and sons. Best line of the book: "I killed the monsters [...]. That's what fathers do." Yes! This is one of those rare moments of perfect rightness. Loved it. So despite the lack of set-piece battles and the like, this is a terrifically readable book. It feels like there's a lot of setup in it, it's true. Yes, we're inching painfully slowly towards the big showdown and yes, much of the book is taken up with putting the important characters where they need to be, but it doesn't matter. I was absorbed every step of the way, loved seeing Tiel come into his own and the pages just kept turning. A good four stars, and let's hope it's not too long before the final part is out.

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