Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Scriber' by Ben S Dobson

This is a book that surely strikes a chord with every avid reader: the society it describes is one recovering from the worst of all traumas, where all the books were burned. Not just a few heretical ones, but almost all of them. Just a few precious scraps of information remain from the collected history and scientific knowledge of the time before the burning. Dennon Lark, the scriber of the title, is an academic, dedicated to recovering as much of the lost knowledge of the pre-book-burning age as possible, wherever it may be found. But after an excavation of a possible book hoard site went horribly wrong, killing several people and destroying priceless religious artifacts, he ran away to a peaceful life in obscurity.

There wouldn’t be much of a story if he stayed there, though, would there? There are strange goings on in the land, Dennon hears voices in his head and a chance meeting with soldier Bryndine, the King’s niece, sees Dennon caught up in the defence of the kingdom. It’s the characters that shine here. Dennon himself is nothing at all like a typical hero – an almost pathologically reclusive academic, with no courage to speak of except in pursuit of his precious books. Bryndine fills the heroic role here, a woman of honour and unswerving devotion to her oaths and her people. She has gathered together a motley band of female warriors, of mixed backgrounds and personalities but all implausibly skilled at arms and of infinite courage and powers of endurance. And if that sounds eye-rollingly bad, they never came across as being the least bit cliched, so for me, at least, they worked.

The plot was a tad less successful. To say it was predictable doesn’t really do it justice. If our merry band rides into a rocky mountain pass on the cusp of winter, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess that there will be a) a snowstorm; b) an avalanche; or c) an attack of fearsome beasties. Or all three. Sigh. And I lost count of the times the search for some gizmo or other (in this book, it was a letter or journal or stash of books) ends in apparent failure, only for a chance remark to have Dennon suddenly say: ‘Oh, wait a minute, that gives me an idea...’.

The world-building, by contrast is rather good, even if everything interconnects rather too neatly. The writing is excellent (I didn’t notice a single typo, which must be some kind of record). However, I very much disliked the author’s habit of ending a chapter on a dramatic note, a fade-to-black or some other cliff-hanger, and opening the next chapter with: ‘I woke up to find...’. Bleh.

The ending is the expected grand battle which, to be honest, was so emotionally overwrought that I skipped most of it, as well as the endless pages of angsting that preceded it. Not my thing, I’m afraid. Nothing terribly unexpected happened, so for anyone looking for an original twist, this is not the book for you. Nor will you find any deep introspection or a profound philosophical treatise.

What you will find is a terrific adventure story with ever-escalating action, some unusual but convincing characters and a well thought out background. It’s dragged down a little by the slightly implausible ending, and the repeated attempts to evoke an emotional response and ramp up the stakes by killing and maiming characters (leave my favourite sidekicks alone, dammit!). On the whole, though, this is an excellent piece of fantasy. Four stars.

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