Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

The Summoner
by Gail Z. Martin
Solaris, 2007
637 pages

This is the first of a series, the Chronicles of the Necromancer. I first heard about it on, and I was intrigued by the premise, or what little I knew of it: the dead walk among the living, and the main character is a necromancer. Usually the necromancers are the bad guys, but that wasn't the case here and I was curious to see how that worked.

Tris, aka Prince Martris Drayke, is the younger son of the king of Margolan. He's a quiet young man, more interested in studying and hanging out with his friends than he is in ruling the kingdom; luckily he's got an older brother, so that won't be a problem. What might be a problem, though, is that his older brother is a blood-and-power-hungry kind of guy, and when Jared kills their family in a bid for the throne Tris manages to escape and run for it with the help of a few friends. While there are precious few living people he can trust, he's beginning to realize that he has power with the dead -- a lot of power. And the dead are more than willing to work with him to destroy the evil that threatens the entire world.

So there you have a pretty standard fantasy quest story, encompassing questions of love and vengeance, loyalty and power, good and evil. We have a protagonist on the run from something, and turning back towards that same something now that he has grown enough to face it; he is crazy-powerful and chosen by the goddess. The bottom line is, if you like this sort of epic quest fantasy, you'll enjoy this one too. It's not a book to challenge anyone's assumptions; it's a book that a quest fantasy fan will feel at home with. The trappings are really cool -- the world specifically. The system of magic, and the ways that the dead and the undead play into it, are really well done, and I quite enjoyed the way Tris straddles both worlds, not entirely comfortable in either. There were definite flashes of brilliance in the world building.

Tris himself is a very relatable character, which can be quite hard to do with chosen-by-the-goddess and mad-powerful characters. He stays human; he's not preternaturally gifted with everything. He's got flaws and failings, and he is believably afraid and angry and sad, but still very likeable. I like that though there's a definite feeling of "hand of the goddess" -- fate, protection of the divine, that sort of thing -- in this case it hasn't convinced me that everything will be okay.

But -- and this is a big "but" -- I thought that this was a somewhat mediocre read. The foreshadowing is a bit blunt for my tastes, and the exposition is often noticeably awkward and clumsy. Some of the characters aside from Tris are relatively interchangeable, and the plot, while the trappings are good, has been done before. Many times. Finally, I never really got into the flow of the story before there was another passage of obvious exposition to take me right out of the book, and that kind of thing always bugs me.

The whole thing shows promise, but. Overall I felt this was a rather predictable quest fantasy with an engaging main character but somewhat wooden writing. There's potential here, but I'm not really chomping at the bit to read the next one. If I happened across it I would probably pick it up, but it's not a waiting on tenterhooks/go search it out kind of read for me.


Shelley said...

Is it good or bad that there's such a thing as a "standard" fantasy quest story?

Unknown said...

Oh man, that's such a good question and I've been thinking about it. Here's what I've come up with so far:

I don't think it's necessarily either good or bad. The "standard" quest story is pretty archetypal. Hero/ine goes out, faces a series of trials, returns changed having defeated personal demons, either physical or mental, and usually ends up better off than they were when they left. Whether we're fantasy fans or not, we're familiar with that story, and it's a comfortable place to be. I really *like* the standard fantasy quest -- it feels good to read. Some of my favourite books fall smack into this category, like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, and Patricia McKillip's Riddle-master trilogy. Done well, it's probably my favourite kind of story.

Unfortunately, done poorly, I think the standard quest plot is a crutch for an author to lean on, perhaps even preventing them from doing something truly creative; and because it's so widely used it's also extremely predictable. For this reason, I think the onus is much heavier on the author to be creative within the plot conventions and have a fully-realized, interesting world. Even more important are the characters -- yes, standard quests have certain stock characters, but I shouldn't feel that I'm reading about a stock character or I'm less inclined to care. I think, just because of their prevalence, that standard fantasy quests are harder to write well than other books.

Badly-written standard quest tales are the stereotype of the entire fantasy genre, which is I suppose the worst thing about them. The stereotype turns off people who would otherwise enjoy the genre, I think.

So, to sum up this very long reply: I don't think it's either bad or good that there is a "standard" -- it's "standard" for a reason, because it works. But it's also problematic because it's so popular. It all comes down to the author's skill.