Friday, 14 March 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Blood Of The Land' by Martin Davey

This is a real curate's egg of a book. Some parts are awe-inspiringly well written, while other parts are frustratingly bad. It's clear that the author can write, in the sense of being able to craft a well-honed sentence. His ability to create compelling characters or describe his world thoroughly or simply tell a story that absorbs and mesmerises - these are in greater doubt.

The book opens well, with a vividly drawn event which surprises on many levels without being confusing. So far so good. In fact, for several chapters things go very smoothly, and I began to harbour high hopes that this would turn out to be one of those unsung gems, a little treasure unknown and unappreciated by the world at large. But then things began to go awry. The author has a penchant for spookiness that verges on horror, and this works pretty well in small doses, generating a nicely creepy atmosphere. However, it soon becomes clear that much of this spookiness is simply a means of concealing useful information. All too often, a conversation with a character who knows what's going on is so cryptic that nothing is revealed. Characters are told lies or nothing at all, are told to obey without question, are given arm-waving vagueness - it had me screaming with frustration. I get that authors love to withhold details for that big last-minute reveal, but readers do need some information dribbled out to them to keep them interested.

Then there are the characters. The story is told through three main point of view characters. Landros is an indifferent guard watching nothing very much (it seems) in a small town in a remote location. Ysola is an abused wife (yes, that old cliche) now returning to her home village which is mysteriously different from her memories. Marin is an aging warrior but despite that hackneyed description, he's still the most interesting of the three, for reasons I'll get to. To start with the three seem to be completely separate, and this gives the early parts of the story a disjointed air.

The world-building is intriguing. Several thousand years earlier, during a time of kings described as 'lustful', the nine gods decided to get rid of them and there was a war during which the kings were defeated, four of the gods were killed (curious but unexplained) and a Nameless One was also defeated. Since then, the remaining five gods have controlled a docile human population by 'calling' individuals to do certain things. An individual dreams of meeting one of the gods, who instructs them to take up a particular profession or (in Landros's case) to be promoted to Captain. This immediately raises the question: what happens if the individual refuses? It is Marin who answers it: he has been tortured by the vengeful god every night as he sleeps because he refused. What nasty gods.

But somehow, this interesting background never blossoms into a compelling story. The real problem, for me, was that the main characters are all completely passive. Things happen to them and around them and (sometimes) because of them, but they drift through all this like lifeless dolls, making no decisions, taking no action on their own account, simply being manipulated by events and by other people, without any overt sign of rational thought. When things happen, they fail to react in realistic ways. Sometimes they don’t respond at all. It’s as if they are merely observers at a play, walking around on the stage but simply glorified members of the audience. I’m not a big fan of the get-up-and-go all-action style of protagonist, but I do like a main character to be awake while the plot is unrolling on all sides.

Once I got past the halfway point, it became clear that, while the author may know perfectly well where the plot is going and why, I still didn’t have a clue. I struggled to the 60% point before giving up. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and the only remotely interesting one, Marin, had his most intriguing aspect entirely negated by something that happens to him (which I won’t give away, because it’s a bit of a shocker). The book lacked focus, and in places rambled and repeated itself. It could also have done with a thorough final edit to weed out innumerable small but irritating errors in punctuation and a few spelling and grammar typos.

This was a disappointing read. The underlying ideas are excellent, and the author displays a fine writing style much of the time. For those who like their fantasy deeply mysterious, and infused with a thick layer of horror, I can recommend this. Sadly, it just didn’t work for me. One star for a DNF.

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