(Warning: This is probably my first true “review” of a published book. Sure, I discuss them a lot, but not write this stuff down for all to see. Second, this is long.)
If books were recipes, I could happily mark the 5 star option. Just like the “Awesome Chocolate Chip Cookies” recipe, it has all the familiar ingredients:
1 young country boy with mysterious parentage
1 young girl escaping a forced marriage by masquerading as a boy
Childhood love lost
Court Intrigue conspiring to control the young heir to a vacant throne
Maimed and grisly old villains
1 Lone wolf (optional)
Mix separately then combine and bake with the heat of battle. Serve hot. Note: A dab of cool whipped sarcasm makes a refreshing garnish.
And the book delivered exactly what it looked like. Familiar and fairly predictable from cover to cover, but fun and easy to read. It seemed pretty straight forward and clear-cut. Most of the “bad guys” are shown as visually unappealing and those you are meant to like are given the more handsome visage. Sure, there were some fun little surface twists, but the main plot is standard fare. Reminds me of David Edding’s Belgariad, even to the idea of being raised by a cook. Of course, those who oversee Achan and the motives that put him there are vastly different from how Garion ended up serving in a nobleman’s kitchen in the middle of nowhere. However, like Garion, Achan regards magic and history as mere stories with no significance in his world. Garion had his own childhood sweetheart and an old man of a mentor who Garion nicknames “Mister Wolf”. I seem to recall something about a voice talking to Garion, too.
So am I suggesting copying? Nope, not really. Jill may not have even read the Belgariad. More likely it’s something of the Facebook game of “Who’s your look-alike celebrity?” As I said, these are common elements.
A country boy(or girl) with mysterious heritage is far from rare:
Rand in Eye of the World
Luke in Star Wars
Heck, even Superman!
All are raised in some rural area and don’t know who they are or their true potential. And it’s not by coincidence either. People are fascinated by the idea of someone who seems to be a “nobody” or better put, an “anybody” but turns out to be more than what they seem – that “diamond in the rough”. It also tends to help show a relatively innocent/sheltered hero who is free of the corruption of more “civilized” locales.
The childhood love is a common enough experience that makes the character feel more human. It adds tension and character growth that doesn’t overwhelm, but helps build the character up to face what is coming. True love is much more realistic in round 2 anyway – or round 3. I mean, just look at the real world!
And the old wolf mentor? Well, wolves are just cool. With a connection to mystery, loner a strong fighter – how could a symbol be more perfect? Wolves figure in plenty of good stories that people love – Wheel of Time, Narnia, Harry Potter and Twilight. Even Tolkien snuck wolves into his, but a bunch of punks apparently mistook them for horses.
And who can resist the girl pretending to be a boy? Anyone remember Eowyn? Even the Belgariad has one, but she doesn’t turn up until book two. Apparently in the dark ages, a gal’s got some real spunk if she willing to dress-n-drag and wield a sword, even in China!
Jill’s in good company. And you know that saying of “Great minds think alike.”
With all the standard elements, how could it flop? Especially with Jill’s prowess with description and witty internal dialogue. It flows well, accentuated with fighting and dotted with casual humor – particularly after about halfway through when Achan seems to “come into his own”. Probably the humor highlight was Achan’s laundry list of wants when he’s rotting in the fortress dungeon. Of course, if I had just single-handedly saved the life of someone out to kill me and got thrown in jail, I would probably be spouting off sarcasm too.
On the other hand, having been raised on mysteries, I felt that the spoon-fed background of the empty throne was a bit too contrived. The biggest reason is because “everyone knows” the story, except the reader because information is obviously being withheld, lest you figure out too much. In some ways I liked Edding’s way of having it all pretty much in the open. He has a prologue that gives plenty of information so I didn’t really feel like he was trying to hide who was who, or avoiding talking about the elephant in the room. So, readers looking for a challenging mystery to solve, layered complexity or crazy twists, … well, not here.
The same goes for discerning the villains, (the oily hair slicked back and the long toenails are dead give aways) and doubts over what religion is true in Achan’s world(so do others hear the voice or just Achan?). What you see is what you get. I had neither big surprises nor grand ah-hahs. And not a moment where I seriously wanted to strangle one of the heroes. Of course, that could be more an issue of me. I’ve been described as “Easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” I enjoyed the book, enjoyed the journey and look forward to one day reading on – but it wasn’t gut-wrenching stellar, just a fun book.
I must admit that for all Jill’s attempts to show a slim, fit Prince Gidon, my default image for him was something closer to Dudley from Harry Potter. Somewhere at the edge of my awareness I got the impression that she may have intended him to be good-looking.
Only found one typo – p. 279, “Future king or not, Prince Gidon had no right take Gren.” They missed the word “to”. If anything, I’m impressed by the thoroughness of the editors. I know well how easy it is to miss little things like that. I just enjoy the challenge of noticing. Besides, it’s such a cool line to quote – direct from the mind of the hero as he determinedly sets off to protect those he loves, no matter what it takes.
I have mixed feelings about the training sequences. It is sure that Jill has done her homework, but at moments for me it felt like too much. As if she had ulterior motives to educate me whether I want it or not. Also, the sword play was one thing, but I’m not sure what people think about using real plants/herbs. I’ve felt sometimes when I have done similar that people think it lessens the “fantasy” effect. I use herbs on a regular basis. I’m familiar with nearly all the ones she mentions. Just like with the religion thing, I guess the big question is how obvious do you want to be? Jill has mixed it in, but she has a couple big chunks still.
Now, I could end my review here, but for any diehards still reading, I guess I will do a run through Keven’s Hero’s Journey regarding Achan and Vrell from my point of view. Personally, even as a first book, I thought Jill covered Keven’s stages pretty well. Sure, the fulfillments are mostly tokens because going all the way wouldn’t leave much for the rest of the series.
Warning – I will be referring to actual sequences of the book. But anyone who’s read my “Forewords – grrr…” knows how I feel about punks giving away all the best parts, so let’s see if I can keep this light and intriguing. Jill, if you read or hear about this and think I give too much away, please let me know.(That includes anything I’ve already said)
Achan has fulfilled this in the traditional sense – with about as low as you can go. Orphaned, less than a slave and just about every punk in the story gets to have at least a swing at him. Some get to beat him on a more regular basis – in the first half anyway.
Although Vrell has a wonderful, caring mother, with Nathak’s thugs hanging around, “home” is not exactly a friendly place at the moment. Plus she doesn’t have a father to protect them. Then as a boy, she pretends to be a stray also. So she too gets to be on the bottom of the totem pole.
Can’t imagine how these two poor souls could have been more reluctant…
Journey? Okay, that one’s not even funny. Trust me, they burn plenty of miles.
Companions: Well, I doubt this one is disputed.
I see this more as an issue of “reality check” or first disillusionment, but I felt there were plenty of options. These were my picks though.
Archan’s hunting expedition
Vrell’s dripstone battle(which I very much enjoyed…the outcome anyway)
Death of mentor:
To me this is the sink or swim moment, whether or not anyone dies.
For Achan it’s pretty clear to be where Gavin is banished – both teacher and lone friend with any influence.
Vrell is a bit more subtle, but even she had mentors ripped away and forced to go it alone. From Mitt, the herbalist to Jax. Both taught her, watched over her then were gone. Broader still you could say her mother – as her teacher for bloodvoice and parental figure (which the mentor usually fills when the person comes from the cliché dysfunctional home mentioned above). Contact with her is lost, and Vrell in turn must teach Achan some basics.
Belly of the Whale:
Achan – Some might say the dungeon, but I say trying to save the stupid prince.
Vrell – When she’s discovered and drugged.
Hand of God:
Achan – When the prince leaves him for dead
Vrell – Drugged, bound and ready to be shipped back to her seriously-not-beloved suitor
(You don’t really think I’d give away how they are saved, do you? You wanna know, go read the book.)
Life changing, eh?
Achan – How about surrendering his beloved to save her life? There he lets go of his dreams to ensure her happiness. He kept thinking of ways to convince her to run away with him, but gives it all up in order to let her stay.
Vrell – When she could have escaped home but decides that Achan needs her and so continues her charade though it may mean she’ll never escape.
Gets the girl:
Actually, I’m the one who scoffed at this one before, but all in all, … well, I’m not going to tell you how it ends – that’s for sure. On the other hand, don’t tell Achan – he wouldn’t know what in the world you’re talking about.
Sense of resolution:
After Keven’s comments about cadence, I had moments where I wondered if what could be missing was a clear climax. The beginning half or so of the book felt like it wandered here and there. They were journeys more reluctant than urgent for the reader interspersed with mostly unrelated fights.
However when I reached the end, I was pleased by things finally being brought together and much of the biggest (or at least most obvious to me) withheld secrets were laid bare. A little chaotic, but definitely lively. Perhaps the last page or so was a little rushed, but I was pretty satisfied with the ending – for a first book. If one was waiting for a face off between Vrell and … well, what’s in a name anyway? If that’s what some people wanted, they’ll just have to keep reading.