This was a free book that attracted me because it starts in Scotland (where I live), an unusual feature for a fantasy story. I'm not sure what the relevance, if any, is to the plot, because the lead character is American, but it makes a refreshing change. By contrast, the basic premise is nothing out of the ordinary - a seventeen year old boy finds a portal in a ruined house which transports him to - a parallel universe or another plane of existence, somewhere very different, anyway. Oh, and there's a prophecy, apparently. More interestingly, this other place, Teleria, has suffered a catastrophic war long before (it sounds rather nuclear, actually), which not only created the usual devastation, but opened up rifts in the fabric of space, thus connecting with other dimensions. This, combined with the (presumed) radiation, has knocked out advanced technology, allowed all sorts of stuff, good and bad, to leak through from other dimensions and left Teleria with a number of non-human sentient races, as well as some seriously weird animal and plant life. And magic, although, rather nicely, it has a different name. This is much more intriguing than the usual dull pseudo-medieval backdrop, and gives the book an almost sci-fi feel.
The portal-leading-somewhere-bizarre is not an original idea, but it's a very effective strategy. The hapless victim can express his (and our) bewilderment and ask all the right questions, and whoever's on the other side (a Loremaster in this case) can explain some essential background information to him (and us). There's also the potential for some wonderful culture clash moments, and the author plays this up beautifully. There are some terrific laugh out loud moments - I love a book which makes me laugh. It's not just the amusement of hearing the Telerians trying to pronounce Missouri ("Misery? What a dreadful name!") or understand basketball ("... you do battle to establish dominance..."), the real fun is in the trickle of American teenager-isms ("I think my weird-o-meter is broken"), which runs on throughout the book.
The created world is not as detailed as some, but it feels plausibly alien, and I like the way the reader is gently reminded that this is a very different place by little snippets here and there - odd bits of other languages, references to a sixdays instead of a week, and a quarter day's journey instead of hours or miles, for instance (and it varies according to whose point of view we are in, which is brilliant attention to detail). All the strange creatures are well described, and are different enough to be interesting. I particularly liked the mysterious Shanthi, with their invisibility and strange code of honour. And the fighting pack animals seem like a very useful idea. There's quite a lot of history behind Teleria's current state of play, and sometimes the info-dumps seemed a bit heavy handed. We really don't need to know every last detail. Leaving some things mysterious can be more fun sometimes than having everything out in the open.
The magic system is nothing very special - almost everyone has some ability, it involves a bit of finger-waggling, some focus and passion, apparently, and the most adept can do pretty much anything - flame throwing, mind-reading, healing, defensive shields, you name it. I'm not a big fan of these kinds of almost unlimited abilities with the wave of a hand, I much prefer more elegant means of spell-casting (like the air-writing in Brandon Sanderson's Elantris, for example), or a single ability (such as the water-shifting in Glenda Larke's Stormlords trilogy, which the characters used in an amazing variety of ways). And frankly, it's just too convenient when people can be healed of almost any wound. But that's just my personal preference, there's nothing wrong with the arrangement here, and it's used consistently. And I very much like that magic is a post-apocalyptic feature, which also created a few people with super-powers, the Altered (but let's call them gods, for short). This is ingenious.
[ETA: I've been a little unjust here; there are a number of 'orders', each of which specialises in some aspect of magic - healing,animal life, metallurgy and so on. So it's not really as much of a free-for-all as I imply.]
The characters don't have a great deal of complexity, but then the book is (presumably) aimed at a young adult audience. I felt, though, that everyone was too black and white - the good guys were almost too nice, honourable, honest and kind to children, and the bad guys were too evil, razing villages to the ground just for the hell of it and bent on the inevitable global domination. A few shades of grey, or more complicated motives perhaps, would have lifted the book to a new level. And sometimes the tone becomes too overtly moralising and heavy-handed. But there were hints of something more interesting in the mistrustful relationships between some of the races - humans and Shanthi, for instance, and Ferrin and Yellowtooth. I would be interested to know more about that. By contrast, the gloriously mismatched trio of Gatlor, Seerka and Calador got along well, and their verbal sparring in the midst of battle was a highpoint. I also liked the Loremasters - their formality with each other, and their dithering over what to do with Jason, which felt very human (even though not all of them were!).
One other aspect that's absolutely note-perfect is the varying dialogue for the different characters and races. Reyga the Loremaster is done particularly well - a formal style of speech that never tips into the absurd. And Jason, the seventeen year old, never loses his Americanism and behaves exactly as you'd expect someone of his age and background to behave - he's sensible without being unnaturally intelligent, assertive without aggression and (sometimes) plain bewildered without becoming stupid. Even Bothan's Scottish accent sounded fine to me, and that's a hard one to get right.
The story itself is a real cracker, not an original plot but very well done. I was drawn in from the very first sentence, and from then on the pace moves relentlessly. Actually, sometimes it almost felt too fast. There were jumps of hours or days when I felt taking things a little more slowly could have given the book more depth, by expanding our knowledge of the characters, for instance, or allowing the reader to savour this strange world, or simply showing how Jason was feeling about things. The author does a good job of conveying Jason's bewilderment when he first arrives in Teleria, and occasionally when things get really weird, but I would have liked to know more about his reactions as the group travelled toward's Lore's Haven, for instance - there's very little description of the villages or the surrounding countryside, and it's all a bit dry. It must have seemed very strange to Jason, yet he seems to accept everything very quickly.
I very much liked the way the whole story is sprinkled with mysteries and unanswered questions from start to (almost) finish. As one question is answered, another two or three spring up straight away. It's never obvious who Jason can trust, and who might be working for the other side - or even which side IS the other side! And there's the usual problem with teenage-boy-with-unexpected-powers stories - why? How did Jason end up being so important?
There are some plot contrivances that stretch credibility somewhat. The information Nyala gives Jason, for instance, which is conveniently forgotten and then 'remembered' at key moments. The so-useful ability to 'see' auras. And the extremely capable Lenai seems to turn into a helpless female at crucial moments, such as the early attack by the Trellin, and more particularly her meeting with Reyga - this is someone who can make herself invisible, after all, and is a trained warrior, how could she possibly find herself in that situation? She would simply have disappeared the instant she felt threatened. Or, if she were sensible, she would never have been visible at all.
The ending feels satisfying on a number of levels, and although there are no great surprises in the actual outcome, the way things are achieved is rather slick. And, as is customary, while the story is complete in itself, it sets everything up very nicely for the sequel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, tearing through it in a couple of days because I just couldn't put it down! It's not a particularly deep affair, and sometimes the writing style was a bit dry and factual, but as a straightforwardly entertaining tale, it can't be beaten. Four stars.