This is the first of what will eventually be many looks into a book I’ve read recently. I’ll give a big warning before I get into the nitpicks, spoilers, and things of that nature.
Should You Read This Book?
Probably not. I was initially sucked in by the unique voice and successful humor of the first few chapters. In the end, reading the trilogy is like watching an overburdened, drunken mule try to walk in a straight line for several weeks. Spoiler alert: he does eventually make it, but everyone who watched the debacle wants their time back.
Seriously though, while the series had some high points, it was mired in far, far, FAR too much muck for me to recommend it to anyone. There aren’t even any real novel ideas or interesting approaches to a magic system or a setting in the book. It’s all pretty cut and dry vanilla fantasy. The redeeming qualities are a few good laughs very early in the first book. I think I nose breathed maybe three times through the rest of the three-book series. The relationship between Dante and Blays was endearing at times, but not enough to overshadow the other faults.
The Magic System: In most cases, a magic system is only as good as its limitations. In some stories, the “fuel” for magic is a physical and finite resource. Sometimes the magic itself is somewhat weak, but can be used creatively to great effect (kind of like in Harry Potter). In this story, you can pretty much do whatever you want with magic, but you get tired. And if you’re a really skilled sorcerer, it takes longer for you to get tired.
The magic system was a huge issue throughout the entire story. There were many instances where the seemingly endless powers Dante possesses would have side-stepped an entire 400 pages worth of political maneuvering. For example, in the third book, he is threatened by the Minister and thrown out of the city just as he seems on the verge of getting what he wants. Dante had thoughtlessly killed more people over less in earlier sections of the story, but in this case, he lets himself and his friends be escorted from the city. Other times, he inexplicably decides to fight enemies with his sword rather than spike them through the face with nether.
But the biggest abuse of the magic system came during the end of the “Chain-breakers War”, which I don’t think sounds as cool as Robertson thought it did. Dante, who previously had been barely able to do more with the nether to move the Earth than he could with his hands, cracks a chasm open in the ground that swallows thousands of soldiers and saves the day. This moment, combined with the contrived feel of Lyra’s death at Dante’s hands and Blays’ refusal to hear reason was among the sloppiest moments in the series.
What I learned From Reading this
I try to take something away from every book I read, if not many somethings. This book, while I didn’t enjoy many parts of it, still taught me some valuable things.
- Imagery like “as black as the space between the stars” is cool, unless you also compare every single thing in your story to something “sky” or “star” related. Basically, don’t over-use a source of imagery.
- While it might seem cool to have a magic system that has few drawbacks, it makes the plot tricky. When your characters can kill anyone with a thought at any point, writers are forced into some contrived situations.
- The hint of a fight is much more satisfying than a fight.
- Using modern slang in a fantasy story is really jarring (“Hauled ass”, seriously?)
- Don’t create a new “race” of people unless you put a lot of thought into making them interesting.
- People within a race need to differ as well.
- Putting your characters in life-or-death situations too often takes the suspense out of the moments.
- Never, ever, ever write scenes that feel like characters in an MMORPG completing quests. “If you want this information, you must first kill all the rats on my boat.” That literally happens, by the way. Or, “I’ll tell you if you steal a letter for me.” Or, “I’ll tell you where to go if you convince this Norin to make a portrait of my face.” Ughnnnrh. Just thinking back on them is painful.
The Plot and Pacing:
Read the following at your own risk. It’s a breakneck speed version of the plot that is enough to satisfy your curiosity if you don’t plan to read the book.
The basic plot is that two boys are manipulated into killing a woman. They realize they are being manipulated but decide to pledge their loyalty to the one who manipulated them anyway. End of book 1.
The boys have been helping the Norin by smuggling weapons to them for years now (Oh my God the Norin. The most boring, uninspired fantasy race ever to be created. More on them later). The boys are manipulated by the Norin and end up starting a war with a king who has been mostly irrelevant up until this point in the story. The boys go on a series of fetch quests that accomplish largely inconsequential tasks. A few hundred pages are spent with the boys doing favors that lead to more favors to finally earn. . . A discount on grain for their home city. In fact, the vast majority of book 2 is spent with Dante playing a board game that never is mentioned again and the boys completing tedious “quests” like going to talk to this guy who sends them to another guy, who wants them to bring him this thing. Then there’s a big battle, but the boys win because Dante can miraculously do something a few orders of magnitude greater than what he could ever do before. End of book 2.
Blays ran away and is knee deep in Robertson’s attempt at political intrigue. Dante wants to find Blays. Dante finds Blays and Blays gets away, but Dante spoils Blays’ plans when he finds him. Blays escapes Dante by hiding on a beach protected by powerful nethermancers. Dante goes back home. Blays learns to become a nethermancer because SURPRISE, everyone can actually be a nethermancer. They just don’t try hard enough. Dante goes to investigate lights in the north and runs into CAPPERS, which are boring animals that are basically just bear-sized things with horns that are immune to nether. 1000 pages later, Blays is still doing what he’s doing and Dante is still in the same mountains, just trying to cross them this time. Dante found out about a thing called the black star, which is the only plot point that interested me enough to finish the story. It apparently grants a wish and Dante wants to find it before the Gaskan king does. Dante brings a guide, “Ast”, with him, who is 100% devoid of personality. There’s a hint made early that he might be planning to betray Dante, but nothing comes of it except Ast literally admitting he planned to betray them, but changed his mind much later.
They realize the other side of the mountains is covered by huge trees that people live in. They check the first tree they see people in, which happens to be the capital and home to the only other person on the entire planet who is both looking for the black star and has a means to find it. Dante gets a cryptic hint to go somewhere else (this is a recurring theme, if you haven’t noticed. The author really likes writing about the characters traveling on the road, but nothing much ever happens on the road). They go to another city, where they also have to do some tedious quests for a lady before she gives them another cryptic clue. They are told to go to ANOTHER place. They go to a desert, where they find a village and are forced to do some tedious tasks before they are giving another cryptic clue. This time they go to the ruins where they realize that the mountains separating the two lands were made by the last person who used the black star. Dante realizes the guy who sent him there knew this all along, but just thought Dante wouldn’t believe him unless he saw it (that was about 300 pages).
Finally, Lou, who was apparently a filler side-kick while Blays was gone and completely boring and irrelevant to the story, gets killed. Dante learns where the black star is but Blays was also trying to stop Dante from using it. So right as Dante finally finds it, Blays snatches it out of his hands, runs away, and accidentally delivers it to the Minister. A lot of planning goes on which basically culminates in, “let’s go steal it from him while he sleeps because Blays learned to turn invisible.” Somehow, Blays, who up until this point has been a peerless swordsman and nearly impervious to harm, manages to miss his target when he stabs the sleeping Minister. He hits him in the chest with the dagger and stands there stupidly while the Minister screams, instead of I don’t know, stabbing him again. Robertson tries to justify Blays’ decision to stab him in the heart by saying that he couldn’t decapitate the man without making a loud noise, but doesn’t explain why he couldn’t cut his throat. Either way, carnage insues. Blays dies. The Minister happens to be a nethermancer. Dante cuts down the entire tree the city is held in with his magical sword made of bone. Dante finds the black star and uses it to bring Blays back to life instead of to extend his own life indefinitely like he’s been planning the whole time.