This book avoids many of the common errors of the ubiquitous epic fantasy genre, most particularly in plotting. Moreover the basic world structure is pretty coherent, and, unlike Goodkind for example, he doesn’t lazily and randomly introduce new characters/creatures with no attempt to make sense of them in the history of the place. The climax is not the usual anti-climactic afterthought where we’ve all known exactly what was going to happen since about page 30: we still know the goodies are going to triumph, but the action feels like it could go a few different directions right to the wire. And when he is writing action, Kay can do it well: the dramatic events of the vigil over Sandre’s funeral, for example. And thank goodness it’s a single (if 700 page) book.
There is actually surprisingly little action in this book of sensational events. Rather we get indulgent pages trying unsuccessfully to persuade us of just how noble or wise or fascinating our basically one-dimensional characters are. Nowhere is this more painful than in the consistently tedious Dianora. Just telling us (in oh so many words) that someone is the cleverest of manipulative wives, and/or a tortured soul won over by the powerful charms of her enemy, doesn’t make it so. Dianora says or does nothing to convince us of her diplomacy, and Brandon likewise does nothing to make us even sympathetic to why she would fall for him. Kay could say it was just the sexual electricity between them, but some writers can actually write some dialogue that creates this impression. There really is a lot of, “this king, right, he’s really noble and wise, and his right hand man, like, he’s so clever and incisive, whereas this girl, she’s really intelligent” – with very little noble, wise, clever, incisive or intelligent being said or done. Whole chapters read almost like explanations of the book Kay would like to have written – while the actual characters and narrative fall way short. I might have forgiven him this if he had’ve carried me along with action, but when you get down to it there are a lot of pages where nothing much actually happens.
Instead you might get the sort of bizarrely common cross between blushing teenage romance and James Bond womanising farce. The boys and girls in the story interact with stammering coyness and at times nauseating sentimentality (eg. with Rovigo’s family), yet these are meant to be hard bitten, sexually experienced, guerrilla killers. We pause for absurd group hugs (“I love you guys,” – very David Eddings) and fantasy one night stands as the odd nympho just happens to pop by. We’re supposed to even take the ‘keep ‘em happy’ occasional titillation seriously, but the perspective is overwhelmingly adolescent. It doesn’t get totally pornographic, more it’s got the feel of a nerdy kid trying to act knowing, “Yeah, sure, I’ve done it, man, f’waaaaar” (think of Arnold Rimmer’s “I gave her one!”). Likewise the frequent attempts to sound cool by mentioning khav (i.e. like a million teenagers dropping the secret password to supposed worldliness, ‘beer’). Again, there are some grown ups who can actually write about sex, or alcohol, with some insight – this sort of stuff is embarrassingly tryhard.
As indeed is the style at too frequent intervals. Again, how long can you think it’s sophisticated to write pompous self-satisfied paragraphs like:
There had been another mail packet waiting from Rovigo in Astibar. Which, when opened, proved to contain two letters this time, one which gave off – even after its time in transit – an extraordinary effusion of scent.
Alessan, his eyebrows elaborately arched, presented this pale blue emanation to Devin with infinite suggestiveness. Ingonida crowed and clasped her hands together in a gesture doubtless meant to signify romantic rapture. Taccio, beaming, poured Devin another drink.
The perfume, unmistakably, was Selvina’s. Devin’s expression, as he took cautious possession of the envelope, must have been revealing because he heard Catriona giggle suddenly. He was careful not to look at her.
Selvina’s missive was a single headlong sentence – much like the girl herself. She did, however, make one vivid suggestion that induced him to decline when the others asked innocently if they might peruse his communication.
Maybe, just maybe you could handle something of this (although the style here is simply bad) if you liked the naïve young character, but he’s being sold to us as a highly intelligent analyst, a blooded assassin, a supremely confident professional performer, and an experienced lover (who’s held his dying love) who’s up for a bit of tail if it presents itself in a cupboard or involves some S & M with a total stranger. It amazes me how common (McCaffrey, Asimov, Eddings, Jordan, Goodkind…) this sort of immature tosh is in supposedly adult fiction. It would be much better if they simply cut the sex out (they’re not that good at it) and unashamedly wrote innocent adolescent fiction.
Sure, I’ve given it a bit more of a caning than it probably deserves, but I can’t help but conclude with the music sub-plot that runs through (cf. the elitist McCaffrey). Guy, this is something you need to pay attention to: text is NOT an aural medium – no matter how much you tell us just how fabulous the performances are in this story, it just doesn’t work when you’re only using words. It’s like someone saying, “I heard this hilarious joke the other day – honestly, it was soooo funny. It was, um, about this cow and this, um, windmill or something, but, boy, sheeesh, did I laugh.” Now I’m not saying that you can’t write a good book about musicians (Ian Banks’ Espedair Street; Peter Goldsworthy’s Maestro), but if you are, it’s pretty absurd to just keep bleating on about just how damn good they sound to an audience who, by definition, can’t hear them. Oh, and as a PS, do you think it was particularly wise to allocate the harp as the instrument of choice of a wizard … a wizard that is who a) is missing two fingers (Django Rhineheart aside), and b) is at pains to keep people’s attention off his unusual hands?