Witness - Bill Blais
From Connecticut Yankees through wardrobe-dwelling children to unbelieving lepers and beyond, the device of real-world-character-goes-to-fantasyland has been done to death and then some. Like many familiar tropes, it's not too bad when it's done well, but at its worst it can be nothing more than a lazy shorthand for "look how weird this all is" and a poor excuse for infodumping the world's rules on the new arrival. Bill Blais is clearly genre-savvy and aware of the pitfalls here, and in Witness he attempts to skate around the trope's failings and do it properly. The success of this is somewhat qualified, but it was by no means a bad read.
Our lucky fantasy-world visitor is Rick, slightly geeky Nice Guy from modern-day Boston. Actually, it is visitors plural, as Rick is accompanied by arrogant jock Stephen, whose ex-girlfriend Rick is now dating. Stephen's attempt at Rick-bashing lands them both in the middle of a battle between Fantasy World emissaries, resulting on the death of the legendary hero, and the two men being sent back through the portal in his place. They find themselves in the middle of a land riven by civil war and intrigue, where races scheme and plot against each other, and court factions strive to thwart prophecy. Rick has read enough fantasy to know how it's all supposed to go, but nothing quite works out how he expects...
On the surface, this is an interesting idea, but there were quite a few flaws that stopped it from entirely working for me. Blais is certainly a competent writer and there was very little to complain about in his style, but the story still had a lot of rough edges, an unfortunate hallmark of self-published books. One of the first problems that stood out was the all-too-common issue of silly fantasy names. Not the actual names as such (Blais is admirably consistent with his nomenclature) but more the immediate barrage of them the moment the book opens, when large numbers of characters and races are introduced before we've had a chance to work out which ones we should care about. I wasn't too keen on his attempt at fantasy-swearing either; characters say things like "For rakk's sake!" and "Magg it!" which just look rather daft.
The character overload was a feature throughout the book - we rarely got to spend enough time with any of the minor players to care about them, especially when several of the more interesting ones got killed off quite early on. This left us with just Rick as our main focus, and unfortunately he was not a particularly compelling protagonist. Perhaps it's a matter of taste, but I've never been keen on really pathetic heroes, and I found Rick very irritating to read. This was compounded by his too-obvious Good Guy status - aw, he's a fantasy fan, like us! And he never gets the girl and is intimidated by the nasty bully! This seemed a rather cynical attempt at relating to the geek demographic, and I just didn't think he was that interesting; his constant name-dropping of real-world references (brand names, song lyrics, you name it) was also extremely jarring.
Rick's starring role meant that the actual plot was less interesting than it should have been, too. The fantasy-world politicking in the background was intriguing and I'd have liked to have seen more of it, but with the focus on Rick, we mostly got a standard capture-escape-repeat plot as he bounced around between the various factions. Alas, the real nature of the backstory was never entirely made clear, as the real-world stuff tended to get in the way and make for quite a messy picture - though the use of Rick's walkman as a major plot point was a nice and amusing twist. This being the first part of a trilogy, the politics and history will probably become clearer later on, but ideally we should have been given a better picture of this to start with as it's currently rather confusing.
Overall, this was a well-written book with an original take on an old trope, but it could have used a lot of cleaning up. The character arcs are too short, which weakens the impact of the various deaths; the protagonist is too bland and one-dimensional and needs spicing up quite a bit; and the backstory needs more prominence to counter Rick's boring journey. The action scenes tended to be rather confusing, too, and could have used some more direction. I probably wouldn't bother with part 2 of this series, as the end seemed to be segueing into another trope that I really dislike, but Blais is a decent writer and with a different setting he may be capable of some good things.