Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of a debut

This book was provided courtesy of Tor publishing

Lately I've been burning the candle at both ends, leaving certain elements of life to suffer. Ach, such is the burden of prioritization. Anyway, I finished John D. Brown's debut novel, Servant of a Dark God, on Sunday night. I should have had the review up last night, but had nothing left in the tank.

This is more than a debut novel. This was a launch. Fans of video games will know what I'm talking about here. Seriously, a heretofore unknown quantity (i.e. John Brown) gets Swanland cover art, Tor Forge, testimonials from Brandon Sanderson, Ken Scholes, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., David Drake, Kage Baker and David Farland, a publicity campaign that hits all the right blogs and, then, manages to even find Ubiquitous Absence? Somebody is seriously sold on Brown. Incidentally, so am I. With clarification on that coming later, let's first look at the story.

Summary: In Brown's novel, you have a protagonist who, at first glance, is yet another installment of the coming-of-age story. Okay, now look a little deeper. This young man (Talen) is as conflicted as you could want. Talen's father is a Koramite (a race of people who are, clearly, second class citizens) while his mother is Mokkadian (the dominant race within the tale). Talen spends his early years making an attempt at respectability by seeking acceptance into the Shoka clan from which his mother is from. Talen has a connection in that his maternal uncle is a man of some reputation within the clan. Beyond that, however, Talen is, largely, dismissed as the "half-breed." Talen views the Koramites, from which his father descends, as a people who constantly provoke the oppression which they endure. Talen walks across the knife's edge of an identity struggle between the two halves of his lineage and endures periods of hatred for both sides. Ultimately, Talen must choose which heritage to follow and learn to live with the consequences.

Analysis: I've heard, often enough, that fantasy uses magic as science fiction uses technology. While I get that, I dismiss it because it will lead people into expecting a formulaic approach. The magic within Servant of a Dark God is not a substitute for technology. It is a fusion of politics and religion. Each person is, nominally, capable of calling upon the "Fire of their Days." While this is so, the overwhelming majority would never even suspect it. The knowledge of such truth turns out to be a closely guarded secret by the current theo-political heirarchy. In an effort to protect their monopoly upon such knowledge, the established clergy have long since initiated a pre-emptive anti-campaign. This campaign works against such knowledge coming out by inculcating society to view those outside the established heirarchy, with such power/ability as heretics and abominations. The term used as a slur against such a person is sleth. The activity of engaging in such non-sanctioned secrets is slethery. Clearly, Brown has used elements from our (i.e. humanity's) own world, history and cultures.

I saw other such parallels. Given the map at the beginning of the book and the nature of the races present in the clan lands of Whitecliff, one is reminded of early American colonialism (sans black powder). The type of racism once prevalent in the American past, is seen within elements of this story. For instance, at the gate entering the city of Whitecliff, Koramite men are made to strip naked by the city guards to be "inspected" with neighborhood women, children and others looking on.

I most liked Brown's laissez-faire approach to the reader. Brown doesn't hold you by the hand and connect all of the dots for you. While the plot progression is more intuitive than not, this book is as deep as you want it to be. That is to say, within Servant of a Dark God you will find as much depth as you care to. I tend to prefer depth of ideas and look for them, which is good because Brown does not offer it up with a cold glass of milk. Within the story, different characters' tales will confront you with the oft pondered conundrum of compulsion and choice. Is compulsion the theft of choice? Is compulsion only an ugly and clumsy attempt to influence choice? Can free will, exercised, trump compulsion, the divine or fate? This is only one such example.

The feel that often comes with the middle book in a trilogy, is something of the feel I got here. It's the laying of groundwork for a much larger endeavor. It's the preparation undertaken in order to unleash the storm. I get that sense from this debut. The story was left such that Brown can, now, turn the entire world upside down, if he so chooses. While the book could just as easily be a stand alone, the natural progression of events can be expected to bring either a mass culling, a reformation/revolution or even a chance of a rally against the immortal.

The Bad: Let me begin by saying, some of these items I do not necessarily find "bad" but want to send out a warning knowing readers differ on many story elements.

First, let's pick some nits. I suspect that the map is not to scale. This may merely be me expecting the land mass to be analagous to North America's east coast. I also hit a couple of reading snags (i.e. typos, I think) which stopped me from time to time. This is the kind of thing you expect proof reading to knock out. I can remember six particular ones off the top of my head.

My more substantive criticisms concern logic errors and suspending disbelief. In one scene, the protagonist is fitted with a talisman around his forearm, so that his sleeve will cover it from plain sight, since this talisman would be an open advertisement of slethery. At the city gates, however, when forced to strip completely naked in order to enter and conduct business, the story treats the protagonist as if the talisman was never there. That talisman would have attracted, especially from the guards, every last ounce of unwanted attention. It just wasn't there! Later, we come to discover the age of one prominent character as being nearly 90 years old, while appearing to be 4 to 5 decades younger. How does he hide that? Seriously, in an era and culture where one is dependent upon his word and reputation, how does one rise in prominence when you've got to hide precisely what you are and how long you've been around?

There are also pacing elements some readers may not like. It goes from intense action, to pondering, to intense action again from chapter to chapter. In that sense, some readers will find it jolting. The areas of intense action also seem to be extended, anywhere from a paragraph to a page-and-a-half, too long. It makes me feel somewhat tense by the time a climactic moment arrives and I don't do tense.

Verdict: This book is a sleeper. It is good, but probably won't be recognized for how good it is until the succeeding books in his series come out. I expect great things for the remainder of Brown's series, as well as his future projects. This is as well rounded a debut as I've yet seen and proposed sequels are "must buys" for me.

Next Up: I have an exceptional interview for this coming Sunday Night. In fact, it might be too good. I don't you if you've deserved it. Have you been extra good this week? Okay, we'll do it. Stop by for an interview with one of the greatest sf&f fans that too many people have not yet heard of.

Also, back to reading Gene Wolfe's Severian of the Guild.


Josh Carr said...

That was a great book review. I read this book a few weeks ago and I also loved it. It was perfect for me I have no complaints. I have actually liked it more and more the longer I have had to think about it. I have even had dreams about the book. Like I said I was totally into it.

You may have missed it in your reading but the character who was 90 looked younger because he has stolen fire from others to preserve himself so he didn't look his age. It also hinted but didn't come right out and say it that he had started over in this place and not that he had always lived here which would explain why nobody was weird about a 90 year old looking like he is 40.

I was also confused about the soldiers not finding the weave - I guess he took it off? Could have been a great opportunnity for some additional tension in that moment (not that it needed it)

Overall I have to say I couldn't put this book down. I read it in 4 days but wanted to read it one. I should also say that the opening is unique and ingteresting but just a little bit slow. It took me about 6 (short) chapters to really get hooked.

Josh Carr said...

I wanted to add one thing. I really like this author and he writes a great blog.

if your interested...

PeterWilliam said...

I see your point re: starting over. I just can't imagine facing the difficult task and doing it. To leave previous relatives and friends behind. To watch those you love grow old, while you yet remain. I can see it breaking down a person's soul.

On another note, I'm in the midst of attempting to get an interview with the author.

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