Monday, 18 November 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Keepers of Arden: The Brothers, Volume 1' by L K Evans

This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?

The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]

There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.

The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).

Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.

The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.

The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.

I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.

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