Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review: 'Call of the Herald' by Brian Rathbone

So - there's a prophecy, and a farmboy, sorry, farmgirl, with unexpected talents, and a holy war... Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Well, nothing wrong with the traditional storylines, if they're done well, and the author makes a reasonable show with this one. There's a prologue, which sets the scene and gives a bit of useful background, and then there's a comet, and then straight to our heroine, sweeping out the barn and away we go, with the unexpected outbreaks of power, and the hasty escape from trouble.

I like to know what sort of a world the author has created for the story, and this one is in many ways fairly conventional - low technology agricultural. However, this is not the usual European medieval setting with mud-splattered peasants and castles and knights. It feels to me like a western - everyone rides horses into town, leaving them at the stables, women are called Miss so-and-so, there's a more stratified society (poorer but hardworking country folk, richer town folk with fancy clothing, nobles) and children are educated until adulthood. It takes quite a sophisticated society to value education for everyone, that is, an extensive bureaucracy that requires even ordinary workers to keep records, more usually associated with industrialisation. And how come even the poor farm kids can afford horses to ride? I'm curious, too, about what sort of society allows a teenage girl and three teenage boys to go camping together - a very trusting one, I suppose. But it's just conceivable that I'm overthinking this :-)

There doesn't seem to be anything very much to distinguish this world from our own, at some time and place. The birds, animals, plants and tools all seem very familiar, which is a little disappointing. It seems a little unambitious in a fantasy book not to throw in at least a few little touches that make the setting seem more alien, although I liked the cave which had signs of a former civilisation inside it, and the circle of very ancient trees. The magic, too, is a rather generic some-kind-of-power affair at the moment, with unknown capabilities, but the author has a whole trilogy to develop that aspect.

The characters are rather poorly defined at present. Catrin, the lead character, is quite meek to start with, and spends a great deal of time weeping over something or other, and although she is very capable, has little self-confidence (but she is only a teenager, so that's to be expected). Her sudden change to assertive I'm-taking-control mode felt a bit abrupt to me, although I suppose the signs were there. The three boys are not well-differentiated - I could have done with some clues about physical differences, or behavioural quirks, perhaps. The most interesting characters, to me, are the two older men, Benjin and Wendel, who obviously have some history behind them. But generally the characters feel believably ordinary, no wizards or kickass warriors here.

The plot is the usual thing - farmgirl revealed as a person of power, has to escape from bad guys who want to kill her. That's about it, really. So there's a lot of trudging through the scenery, interspersed with close encounters, and fraught escapes. But to be honest, most of the tension of the journey came from the natural hazards - the wild boar, the hornets' nest, the swamp, and so on. There is also a lot of detailed description of fishing and hunting expeditions, which the author is obviously quite knowledgeable about, and so will the reader be by the end of the book. For anyone who enjoys battles and hand to hand combat, this is probably not the book for you. There is a certain amount of fighting towards the end, and we are left in suspense as to the fate of several characters. However, there is never any doubt about Catrin's survival, so although the final scenes were quite dramatic, there wasn't a great deal of tension in them.

There's nothing actually wrong with this book. On the plus side, it's well thought out, the pacing is good, there are no typos. I liked that there are multiple point of view characters, even quite minor ones, and often quite brief, to keep us updated on other parts of the plot. But on the other hand, the plot is familiar and predictable, the characters are not especially interesting, and the world is nothing very special. The magic is a bit vague, but I assume more will be revealed in the rest of the series. It's just that nothing about the book really stands out. It's a workmanlike effort, and perfectly readable, but it never quite came alive for me and it's not intriguing enough to make me want to read the rest of the series. Three stars.

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