Spoilers Below. I’m writing this review in good faith, as one author reviewing another’s book, trying to balance positives with negatives.
I set as a goal to read 50 self published books this year, and this book is #5 out of 50.
This is a good series. Going back to my reviews for books 1 and 2 in this series, this series is a ‘Chosen One rides a dragon, fighting the Dark Lord’ classic fantasy. This series is self published, and this series is exactly why I’m so glad self publishing exists. Classic fantasy of this vein doesn’t really get published by publishing houses anymore, so self-pub is pretty much the only way stories like this get told these days.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Chosen One Rides a Dragon
- Political Fantasy (Lots of scheming by hidden powers to take the throne)
- Classic Fantasy, with Elves, Dwarves and (not) Orcs
- High Fantasy (lots of magic)
- Epic Fantasy (big, bombastic plots, with the fate of the world on the line)
- Military manuvering and clashing of armies
- Magic school, but it’s extremely minor
- LOTS of combat. LOTS.
- Target audience is anyone 15+.
- Mild gore
- No sex or romance that I remember. However Belina had tons of hilarious innuendos.
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/FUN FACTOR
This book/series is fun classic fantasy! Sometimes you want to go to the movies to turn your brain off and watch a good comic book movie, and be thrilled by the fights and the occasional plot twist. That’s what this series is for me. If you go in wanting to read classic fantasy, you’re going to have a good time reading this.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4/5 Stars)
Note: I weigh books so most are in the range of 2, 3 and 4 stars, and I consider 2, 3 and 4 star books as ‘Average’ quality.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I’m a fan of classic fantasy, but not a super fan. I enjoy occasionally reading a book like this one, but not too often. I feel like I can be objective about this one.
Previous books in the series
- Reviews for ‘The Fall’ and ‘The Exile’ by Ryan Cahill
- Reviews for ‘Of Darkness and Light,’
- Reviews for ‘Of Blood and Fire,’
- Reviews for ‘Eragon: Inheritance,’
- A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer
- ‘The Great Hunt: Wheel of Time #2’ Book Review
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This series’ concept is a classic chosen one rides a dragon, fighting the evil empire, allying with elves and dwarves and an ancient order of dragon riders to save the day. Book 3 in particular feels like a classic middle-book in an extended High Fantasy/Epic Fantasy series, where the narrative is climaxing in big fights and big stakes. This book feels like a middle book in a Wheel-of-Time like series, where heroes have to team up with villains to triumph over even greater villains.
Book 3 is executed well, with a moderate caveat in terms of plotting. I’ll explain it in depth later, but I’ll summarize it here. Book 1 in the series was about ~500 pages long, book 2 ~800 pages long, while book 3 was ~1500 pages. Simply put, book 3 was equal in size to books 1 & 2 put together, and it felt like it.
This book contains a LOT of point of view characters (POV for short) in different locations, and each POV had a distinct plotline. As a result, this book felt like two or three books stapled together. This book could have easily carved off one or two of the plotlines/POV characters and published them separately as another novel or novella. This is not a bad problem to have, honestly. The reader gets a lot of book for their money.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
Major spoilers in this section.
I’ll come right out and say it: this series is tropey.
The protagonist Calen is basically a stereotypical paladin, going out of his way to protect people who’d probably kill him if they had the chance. The magician Rist’s is slightly too obsessed with books and magic, just like the trope of the magician. Aeson is the Chosen One’s magician mentor, just like Gandalf. I could go on, but you get the point.
And you know what? Tropes are good.
Here is a defense of tropes. This is genre fiction, and people read genre fiction to re-experience their past. People read Agatha Christie mysteries, despite the fact that all her books are fundamentally the same. The same goes for thriller books, romance books, and especially western book. Authors re-use tropes, because readers like reading and re-reading the same books over and over again, with minor changes each time.
Calen is Eragon. Eragon is Luke, and Luke is the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Rist is Raistlin, and Raistlin is Koshei the Deathless. Aeson is Belgarath, who is Gandalf, who is Odin.
I’ve heard people argue that tropey characters are bad, or low effort. Indeed, in the past I’ve made that same argument. However, now I disagree. Classic fantasy is the modern expression of human stories, telling and retelling the same stories again and again. The modern practice of storytelling is engaging in reiterating mythmaking. There’s a saying in sociology that myths and legends are the stories a society tells to itself about itself, the means a civilization uses to transmit itself from generation to generation; I’m inclined to agree about this. A person cannot in good faith make the criticism that tropey, classic fantasy storytelling is inferior without saying that three thousand years of human cultural expression is inferior.
Okay, back to this series.
The characters in this are a bit tropey. Expect no inversions. Aeson will not become Bayaz, Calen will not become Rin. However, the characters here do have moments of emotional vitality. As an example, at one point Calen took Dann up on a dragon ride, and Dann suffered from vertigo/fear of heights. Calen took the opportunity to troll Dann by having the dragon fly even faster. This trolling was fantastic characterization, for it was the friendly way a friend trolls their best friend. It was a moment equal parts hilarious and a genuine expression of brotherly love. I loved when the narrative had genuine moments like these, though I will admit they weren’t as common as I would have liked.
Not all is excellent, though. Going back to what I said above about this book having a lot of POVs and plotlines taking place in multiple places, this book contains a LOT of named characters and places. I gave up trying to remember who everyone was. There were multiple points where a named character died and I was like, “Oh no! Steve died!… Who was Steve again?”
You’ve probably heard that the Wheel of Time series has almost 3000 named characters; the back of this book has a glossary containing 150+ named people, and the glossary didn’t contain all the characters in this book. Having so many characters isn’t a bad thing per se; it’s just a writing style I don’t prefer. (I mentioned the Wheel of Time in this regard because I didn’t particularly like that aspect of that series either.) I personally prefer it if only the important characters are named; I personally prefer that because it makes it easier to know who the reader should and should not get emotionally invested in. However, this method of naming everyone does a good job of breathing depth to a setting, making it seem more alive with very little effort.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
This book’s pacing was slow-fast-slow-fast-slow-fast. The author staggered boring scenes from one POV with fast fight scenes in another POV. For example, early on there was a plotline in a mountain kingdom containing lots of fights. This was contrasting with slow scenes of Calen & friends visiting an elf forest, Rist debating the ethics of blood magic, and Arden debating the ethics of abandoning his family for the life of a holy warrior. This is a good strategy by the author, because by constantly contrasting slow, dialogue heavy scenes with fast combat scenes, readers who read primarily for combat are never bored for long, while readers who read primarily for dilogue scenes are never bored for long.
I’m going to break down the structure of this one on a plotlines-by-plotline level. More on that right now…
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Here are the major storybeats of the story.
- A Civil War in Valtara
- This storybeat/plotline takes place in three parts.
- Initial unity in opposition to the Loren Empire
- The hints of dissent against House Ateres
- Open revolt against House Ateres
- The Temptation of Rist
- Act 1 for Rist begins with his captivity in Mage School. He makes friends with fellow students and teachers. He does NOT believe blood magic is ethical.
- Act 2 begins when Emperor Fane himself shows that ‘blood magic is ethical, actually.’ Act 2 ends when Rist becomes a Loren battlemage and performs blood magic on a dying elf.
- Act 3 is the final battle of the war, where Rist participates in a ritual to summon the blood magic god.
- Dahlen Tries to Stop War in the Dwarven Realms
- Act 1: the humans are taking refuge with the dwarves.
- Act 2: assassination attempt! The humans try to leave, but the dwarves won’t let them. Army on army combat.
- Act 3: humans + dwarves fight other dwarves. The good guys prevail.
- Act 4: This happens at the end of the book. During the peace process, a man everyone thought dead returns and kills everyone, claiming the throne.
- Calen Crosses the Desert
- Act 1: Calen + Friends meets druid, who gives them a compass.
- Act 2: Calen and crew enter the Evil Desert. Using the magic compass, they travel north.
- Act 3: Fight against weird eldritch horror cat things.
- Act 4: People go insane due to evil desert magic.
- Act 5: Successfully cross the desert.
- Calen Rallies the Alliance of Elves and Men
- Act 0: Protagonist saves Loren Soldiers and becomes the Warden of Valtyr.
- Act 1: Calen returns from the desert
- Act 2: Calen meets the Rakina. Some choose to help him, other choose to ignore him.
- Act 3: Calen unites the elven kingdoms. He trains.
- Act 4: Ella returns. Calen discovers that Aeson lied to him. Calen leaves.
- Act 5: Calen leaves. He goes to the dragon temple, learns about the past from TIvar.
- Act 6: Blood moon rises. Fight scene. The Rakina who ignored him earlier now help him.
- Ella Becomes a Druid
- Act 1: Fight scenes, with hints that Ella’s a druid.
- Act 2: Ella is nearly killed in battle. To survive, she takes control of an owl and attacks the Dragonguard who’s killing her. She survives, but is captured.
- Act 3: Ella escapes captivity with Rist/Justicar help. She flees to Claen, helps in the final battle.
- Dissent amongst the Dragonguard
- Act 1: Pelenor helps Calen escape the dungeons. Introduce Tivar.
- Act 2: Helios and Eltoar try to spare enemy elf draelid.
- Act 3: Tivar helps save the day
- Listening to Ascheron
- Act 1: The Grandmaster hears voices in his head. The voice says it’s his patron god Asheron, however the only god who’s known to speak to people is Efialtir. Grandmaster uncertain of self.
- Act 2: Asheron (or maybe Efialtir?) convinces Grandmaster he really is Asheron.
Okay, going back to structure, I think this structure worked fairly well. However, I think things could have been tightened up some. This book was long; I felt that the Temptation of Rist, the Valtara, and Dahlen’s Dwarven adventure plotline could have been spun out to a separate novel or novellas.
Valtara: I enjoyed this plotline. The author handled foreshadowing well in this section. Alina had a plotline where she wanted Valtara to become independent on their own, without Calen/Aeson’s help. I felt like Alina needed a little more nuance in her reason why she rejected their help. She seemed proud to the point of being stupid, and Alina isn’t stupid.
Rist: This was my favorite plotline in the story. The author successfully crafted a narrative where Rist’s fall from grace/corruption arc made sense. The side characters introduced here were great. This plotline felt believable.
Dahlen in the Dwarven Realm: My least favorite plotline. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I just didn’t enjoy it. Belina was a bright spot though!
Calen in the Desert: My second favorite plotline. It was an instantly investing concept, well implemented, and didn’t overstay it’s welcome. The narrative fired on all cylinders here, did it’s job and ended. Good work!
Calen rallies the Alliance: I had some trouble with this one. Calen made a few weird decisions in this one which I didn’t understand. There is a trope of the ‘Idiot Ball,’ where a character acts stupidly in a way to make the plot happen. Calen held the idiot ball in this plotarc. THAT SAID, I did like how Aeson acted in this, deliberately ‘betraying’ Calen and Arlen in a subtle but believable way.
Ella’s Druidry: Ella goes on an adventure. Average quality plotline.
Dissent and the Dragonguard: I liked this plotline, for it added nuance to the bad guys. As classic fantasy, it’s all to easy to fall back on the ‘bad guys are so evil, they kick puppies.’ Not so here. The bad guys weren’t originally bad, their initial cause was just, they just got on the wrong track at some point.
Listening to Asheron: I liked this plot arc. It left me guessing.
Arlen: He didn’t really have a plot arc? I think he needed more of a plot arc.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The authorial voice used by the story’s narrator is Classical Fantasy, with windowpane prose. (Windowpane= easy to parse, easy to understand, without an overmuch focus on beautiful prose.)
The story’s tone is darker than your normal Classical Fantasy, but not to the point of being full Grimdark. There is a brief mention or two of gore, but that’s about it.
Book 3 had as a theme of loyalty and betrayal. In Valtara, the rebellion against the Empire is briefly united, until betrayal ensues. Rist must betray either his new friends in the Empire or his friends in the South (aka Calen). Calen, as the new Dralied, must rally the various factions to go to war against the Empire, based on oaths of loyalty sworn to him. Arlen debates the morality of him being loyal to his knighthood when his brother Calen still survives and needs him. The dwarven adventure is all about loyalty and betrayal, as it’s a faction conflict about striving to take a throne.
A final, and relatively unimportant, comment. I noticed a handful of errors in the text. This was an ENORMOUS book, and self-published; I’m inclined to forgive the meager few I spotted. Accidents happen. They were so few they didn’t disrupt my reading experience.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
This book is a very traditional Classical Fantasy. It has elves who live in ethereal cities in the forest. Dwarves live in underground kingdoms. Uraks (aka orcs) go to war to survive. The Empire is evil. The protagonist rides a dragon around. This isn’t ultra original fantasy, and it doesn’t need to be. People who are reading this book are enjoying it in part because it’s not original. Tropes are good, actually.
That said, I liked the nuances the author added to the traditional tropes. I enjoyed how combat was integrated with the magic system in particular. If I think there was room for growth in the series, I’d say that we need to see more of the everyday life of normal people is like. How does magic trickle down to everyday people? What are myths and traditions like for peasants? How does the religion of the gods express itself on normal days? Do elves, dwarves and men trade with one another? That sort of thing.
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- There are two potential methods for naming characters. You can name many characters, or few characters.
- If you name even unimportant characters, you quickly establish a sense of depth for your setting. Characters have names suggest they have a full life as well.
- If you name only the most important characters, then the reader can use that information to be clued into which characters are important and which aren’t.
- Neither method is better. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
- Tropes are good, actually. Writing a trope-y book is good because you potentially can market to a pre-existing audience. People know what they want, and you can give it to them in new ways. No need to invent a new wheel when the old wheel still works.
- While writing, reflect common myths and legends, similar to how Gandalf has his ancestor in Odin, or Luke Skywalker’s ancestor is the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Understand where your novel/characters sit in the constellation of art going back millennia.
- To be sure, write a different story than those which came before. But even if the melody is the same, change the dancing partners.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
This book, and series, is good. I’m eagerly waiting for future installments.
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