Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Wrath of Zar - Shayne Easson

Cover artists (and the publishers who love them) have a lot to answer for. I know it's wrong to judge a book by its cover (look at the dreadful cover art on Erikson's US editions, for example), but this one definitely set alarm bells ringing. The title, too, is rather ominous - the Wrath of Zar? Who is this Zar, before whose wrath we should tremble? I'm not a fan of silly fantasy names anyway, so putting one in the title was an unfortunate move, compounded by the book's first sentence, where we meet "Gnith". But still, titles and covers are a product of the publisher, not the author, and silly names are often a matter of taste, so I gave Easson the benefit of the doubt and read the whole thing. It wasn't quite as bad as I expected, but that's the best I can say about it.

A long forgotten dark lord arises; demons (the Demons of Destiny, no less) roam the land carrying out the Evil World Domination Plan; champions are chosen by the Forces of Good; a hero of humble origins goes on a quest and makes friends with a dragon. Sounding at all familiar so far? That's not to say there's nothing original here at all; there's an interesting bit of backstory about the previous band of Noble Warriors, now the fathers of our current batch of heroes, all retired and bitter about their previous failure; it's also a nice touch to have main hero Adan be an incompetent weakling, on a quest not to save the world, but to find his missing brother. Probably he'll figure out how to use his fancy Dragon Sword eventually, but until then he's at least slightly unusual, despite the Humble Boy Done Good character arc.

Regarding Adan's humble origins, then; is he a farm boy? A blacksmith's lad? A squire? Well, the exact nature of these humble origins is a mystery, as no-one in his village seems to have a job; they also seem to lack basic knowledge of the town's geography, despite it being small enough for everyone to know each others' names. Someone in the village brews famous beer, even though it's in the middle of a forest with no apparent fields of malt or hops; hunting seems to be a popular pastime, but characters see nothing wrong with heading out on a difficult journey with no food or water. This lack of attention to detail occurs throughout the book, and the frequency of stupid anomalies is very distracting. A rapid-fire crossbow, with unlimited bolts, that works even when wet? An abandoned cottage containing a half-full bookcase? An inn called the "Tooth and Tavern", which has "a special delivery arrangement with ale producers"? It looks like Easson has tried to do the standard fantasy-mediaeval setting, but rather skimped on the research.

The one major point in the book's favour is the structure, which is solid, and saves the whole thing from collapsing under its own errors. The story may be unoriginal and rather daft, but it's well-paced, and would have made for quite a decent novel if the writing had been less patchy. For the most part, the writing is serviceable if not particularly great, but every few pages there will be a passage or two of eye-bleeding awfulness. Easson has avoided a lot of the usual rookie pitfalls (thesaurus dialogue is notably absent) but the writing really lacks polish; there are awkward moments of purpleness ("her red, swollen eyes betrayed her grief") and entire pages where every sentence is the same length (10-15 words); there are even a few sentences that make literally no sense at all. His small publishing house probably doesn't have a huge editing budget, and it really shows.

I wouldn't write off Easson completely - there's obviously some talent there for storytelling, and with a bit more practice (and research, and originality) he may be able to nail the other problems in time, too. However, The Wrath of Zar is not a book I'd recommend. With so much great new talent on the fantasy scene bringing in fresh ideas and excellent writing, I don't think anyone needs to read another farm-boy-and-pet-dragon-defeat-the-dark-lord trilogy. It's stuff like this that gives fantasy a bad name.



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