Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Blood of the Falcon' by Court Ellyn

This is sold in two parts for technical reasons, but since they really work better as a single story, I’m going to review the two together. In many ways, this is a very traditional fantasy - a young man discovers unexpected powers in himself as his country is on the brink of war. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with tradition, if it's given a fresh twist and is well-written, as here. The twist in this case is that the young man has a twin brother, not manifesting any powers, so while Kieryn goes in one direction to learn about magic, Kelyn straps on his sword and rides off to war.

The setting is the common-or-garden pseudo-medieval affair, with castles and knights and kings and princesses, and off in the background are elves and dwarves and a mysteriously evil forest. Oh, and pirates. It's all quite nicely realised, however, and I very much liked the evocative descriptions of the scenery, which bring this created world fully to life without ever becoming excessively wordy. I could have done with less of the dancing and feasting at the start, but it serves as a painless, if unoriginal, way to introduce the setting and characters. Fortunately, we soon leave the frivolities behind, but the inevitable problem with such an over-familiar setting is predictability, and the author unfortunately has a habit of heavy foreshadowing. A group of travellers is crossing a mountain pass which has just received a late snowfall. "Watch out for avalanches," warns a passing wagon-driver. Oooh, I wonder what happens next? There are several places throughout the book where the plot twists are very obvious.

The other problem with the standard-issue medieval setting is that women are inevitably shoehorned into a narrow range of job opportunities - queen, princess, handmaid, cook... Now, this particular world has female soldiers, guards and knights too, but it sits uneasily in this clearly patriarchal world. Is there a creche for the offspring of lady knights, I wonder, or do they all have a househusband at home? Or do they have to give up the chance for a family life, and, if so, do male knights have to make the same sacrifice? There are ruling females, too, as well as kings, dukes, etc, but it seems they only get the chance in default of a male heir. And the idea of bastards as a plot-driving scandal really doesn’t fit alongside male primogeniture (they’re a useful backup, and therefore incorporated into the system without fuss).

I wasn't keen on the heavy romantic line. The love interests are flagged up almost from the start, and there's a great deal about pounding hearts and meaningful glances and accidental brushing of hands in one case, and verbal/physical sparring in the other. I don't mind a bit of romance in my fantasy, it's a normal part of life after all, and even the sons of dukes have to fall in love, I suppose, but there was a bit too much of it for my taste, and somehow it all felt a bit forced. Later on, when the inevitable complications arose, things got exceptionally melodramatic. It seems to me that everybody involved behaved badly or over-reacted, so I don’t quite see where the heavy blame-fest for one character in particular comes from.

One thing that really irritated me was the rapid head-hopping points of view. It works (just about) early on to paint in the family background to the two boys, so that we understand the relationships fully, but beyond that it just gets confusing. And there are just way too many different points of view, in fact too many characters altogether. If you’re showing a continent-spanning war, then a few different points of view to cover the whole picture is acceptable, but here absolutely everybody gets their own voice, and their sister/father/cousin etc. It creates a sprawling, undisciplined mess, frankly. There was a point in the first book where I turned the page to find yet another new character, in another new castle, with another new set of circumstances to get to grips with. I was so cross I went off to read another book altogether, and although I came back to this one, I resent the effort involved in trying to keep track of all these people and towns and rivers and horses and whatnot. It’s very common these days, but it does make the story very disjointed, and inevitably it gets confusing with so many characters to remember.

The plot follows two distinct threads. The larger part, or so it seemed to me, was the progress of the war, which we saw from every conceivable angle, every skirmish, siege and sea-battle described in painstaking detail. There’s nothing wrong with this, I suppose, although it seems to have been done a thousand times before, and there isn’t anything particularly unique about this particular war to draw the reader in. Neither the characters nor the methods employed are particularly special, and most of the time entirely devoid of magic, so I found this part rather uninteresting, and the descriptions of the effects of war rather heavy-handed. Those who enjoy battles would enjoy it more, and it’s certainly well described.

The other thread, of Kieryn learning to use his abilities as an avedrin, a kind of mage, is (to me) far more interesting. There’s a fair bit of info-dumping regarding the history of elves and men, but the elves are unexpectedly different and many of them are hostile to men in general and Kieryn in particular, which is intriguing. The elves are particularly well-drawn, being neither the whimsical creatures of fairy-tales, nor the far-above-the-mortal-plane elves of Tolkien. They’re also pretty handy warriors. Kieryn is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, always trying to do the right thing, and I very much liked the way he gradually learns about his powers and how to use them. His reappearance later in the war is unquestionably one of the highlights of the book, although latterly his dramatic nick-of-time reappearances to magically help things along came very close to deus ex machina.

As the book (and the war) progresses, the tone becomes darker. The war becomes more desperate, and from a small, localised affair bursts its banks and spills in all directions at once. There’s a scramble to defend, and a lot of tearing about the countryside to warn people, or groups getting sidetracked by a different battle. The author captures very well the urgency, the difficulty of making instant decisions, the consequences of a single minor event, the impact of a risky but unexpected strategy and the futility of it all. The focus is very much on the characters and the effect on them of the events they witness, and a number of them find out just what sort of people they are at this point.

This is in many ways a very good book, but I found it rather a frustrating read. It’s a fully realised and very ambitious epic fantasy, the world-building is exceptionally detailed, including using a properly worked out elvish language, and the writing is literate and evocative. There were plenty of moments when I was totally immersed in the story and couldn’t put it down, with occasional moments that were spine-tinglingly good. The second volume has more of these, and also more depth and thoughtfulness.

Unfortunately, there were other moments when it was all too easy to stop reading, where the writing was clunky or downright cheesy, or littered with careless typos. The frequent jumps in location and to a different character, and the sheer number of point of view characters, tended to break continuity rather drastically and made it difficult to care very much about most of them. A wonderful chapter might be followed by a jump to a completely unrelated plotline with a character hardly mentioned before. Interesting characters are passed over for chapter after chapter. The desire to cover all aspects of the war leads to sprawl. Some parts are obviously only setup for the next book. Excising some of the less essential parts of the story, like the pirate angle or the renegade elf, and focusing on a much smaller core cast would have made for a much tauter and more polished story.

I really found it difficult to rate this one overall. I actually struggled with it at times, and yet other chapters just sped by. I wanted to know what happened, but I didn’t much care for any of the main characters. It’s undoubtedly very well executed and would be ideal for those looking for a traditional epic fantasy with a cast of George R R Martin proportions. The characters are well-drawn, the sprawling plot strands are neatly managed and there's some depth to the underlying themes. So although I found it a little too uneven for my taste, I’ll be generous and give it four stars.

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