Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Review - Gaelen's Gold by M.K. Flowers
Short review: Gaelen accidentally becomes a wizard in a land in which magic use by humans is banned and high elves are the villains who ruthlessly enforce this rule.
A long ago war
A ban on human magic
Gaelen's a wizard!
Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Gaelen is a sixteen year old girl with problems. The only human in a dwarven village, she is hounded by bullies who torment her for merely existing. She is supported by her adoptive dwarven parents and brother Torar, but chafes under the restrictions she must live under as the result of prejudice against humans and the onerous restrictions imposed upon everyone by the high elves. It seems that several centuries earlier human wizards and the high elves went to war against one another, a war which the humans lost. Consequently, the high elven council imposed restrictions upon the use of magic, including a complete ban upon the use of any kind of magic by humans. Gaelen is jealous that her father and brother are allowed to craft magical items in their work at the family smithy, and longs to make herself a magical sword. Eventually Gaelen attempts to secretly fulfill her ambition, but things get out of hand, she accidentally becomes the most powerful wizard in history, and events take on a life of their own that permanently changes her life and the lives of those around her.
Gaelen's Gold is, in many ways, a very stereotypical young adult fantasy, complete with tree loving elves, industrious dwarven craftsmen, vile goblins, and a plucky teenage protagonist. But although the start of the story seems to be headed into a fairly tired direction, the authors show that they are intent on subverting expectations before too long, making the book much more interesting. However, the interesting nature of the story is somewhat hampered by some fairly weak storytelling devices, frequent pauses in the action so that characters can deliver background exposition, and the fact that too many of the characters are entirely too reasonable despite living in cultures that should mire them in prejudice and mutual hostility.
The most obvious subversion, and the novel's strongest point, is the characterization of the various fantasy races that populate the setting. High elves, commonly depicted since Tolkien as aloof and haughty, but ultimately good and decent, are here arrogant and hidebound, enforcing a draconian order upon everyone around them with a ruthless zeal. Around them are the "common" elves and dwarves, reduced to second class status, with their town sizes casually regulated by the high elves, who dictate how big their settlements can be, where they can gather resources, where and what they can hunt, and so on. On the lowest rung of normal society are humans, prohibited from using magic due to the alleged misdeeds of wizards from hundreds of years before. But outside this society are the stone giants, also called trolls, who are presented as oppressed outcasts, persecuted and hunted by the high elves, and given an entirely sympathetic portrayal in the story. Oddly, although the story includes goblins, they are presented as essentially faceless cannon fodder to be mowed down in large numbers by the heroes. This is disappointing after the rather interesting variants on the standard portrayals that the authors provided for the other races depicted in the book. Given that this appears to be the first book in a series, one might hope that at some point in future volumes the goblin culture will be explored more fully and given greater depth. However, given that Gaelen refuses to kill many of her other opponents out of a sense of humanity, but happily slices goblins in half without a second thought, this may be a forlorn hope.
One somewhat less than believable element of the book is the sheer amount of serendipity that is required to keep the story moving. It is not implausible that the elf Elaeh would find the container holding the infant Gaelen. And it is not entirely implausible that Gaelen would later stumble across one of the last living dragons in the world. or that they would find the secret hall of knowledge of the long-dead wizards. Or that Galen, Torar, and Elaeh would come across the last living wizard. Or even that Torar and Elaeh would meet and chat with the oldest living elf Llanowill. Any of these events would be more or less unexpected, but would not stretch credulity. But when they are all added together along with the numerous other random happenstances upon which the plot hangs, the whole edifice of the story simply seems too built upon random coincidence to stand up. Building on this implausibility is the information Llanowill provides to Torar and Elaeh about the "oldest and most important prophecy of the dwarves". One has to wonder why, if this prophecy is so critical to the dwarves, why it comes as a complete surprise to Torar, and why he needs an elf to tell him about it.
Another quirky element of the story is that despite the fact that Gaelen's Gold features a human protagonist, and the war between the human wizards and high elves serves as the central historical event that shapes the book's entire plot, the reader never really gets a view of human society. Gaelen is brought up by dwarvish parents. The only other humans we meet are consist of a reclusive wizard hiding from the world, a couple of men caught illegally logging who are almost immediately summarily executed, and an innkeeper and his wife who serve as nothing more than set dressing for a chance encounter that Torar and the Elaeh have with Llanowill. We never get to spend time in a functioning human village or a get any kind of real sense of what life as a normal non-magically inclined human is like in this world. Despite the centrality of humans to the conflict that drives the plot, humans are almost entirely absent from the book.
But what the book does have in abundance are chance encounters that result in fast friendships and lots of exposition. At several points in the story a new character shows up, is initially hostile to or wary of the protagonists, but is won over by some reasoned arguments, and then becomes a steadfast ally. And usually also brings the story to a screeching halt for a bit while they deliver the expository information they were introduced into the story to hand out, typically by means of a rambling tale or two that fills in a little bit more of the history of the fantasy world surrounding the Emmerlee Forest. Even characters that are supposed to be antagonists to Gaelen, such as the elven team sent to apprehend her for unauthorized magic use and return her to the high elven council for trial and execution, many of whom are quickly swayed to sympathize with her. And of course, when the elven team sent to arrest her and escort her to her death show up, Gaelen doesn't use her magical sword, or her overwhelming magical prowess, or even her pet dragon to escape. Instead, she decides that her best option is to go along with the elves to plead her case before the high council - a high council that she has been repeatedly informed ruthlessly killed every single other human wizard they could get their hands on including a young boy who wielded magic entirely by accident. Of course, since almost everyone else she has met has been entirely open to reasonable arguments, the intractability of the high elven council may simply not register with Gaelen, but it seems foolishly optimistic of her to expect they will be amenable to reason, which I suppose is just another in a long list of things that Gaelen is foolishly optimistic about.
And this leads to another weakness of the book: the characters never seem to change or grow through the novel. This might be expected of characters like Llanowill or Rommenstein, who are supposed to be mature adults when we first meet them, but for characters like Gaelen and Torar this seems both unbelievable and a missed story-telling opportunity. When we meet Gaelen (leaving aside the brief interlude in which she appears as a newborn infant), she is a happy, friendly, optimistic young woman who believes the best about everyone she meets. As the story closes, Gaelen can wield magic with a power so great that none can rival her. But does this new-found power change her in any way? No. She is still a happy, friendly, optimistic young woman who believes the best in everyone she meets. Similarly, Torar starts the tale as Gaelen's steadfast, honest, and dependable younger brother. And like Gaelen, at the end of the book he is exactly the same as he was when we first met him. Even the characters who "change" don't really do so. The high elves who have misgivings about the draconian rule enforced by the council at the start of the book but are unwilling to openly turn against it end the story with those same misgivings and the same unwillingness to turn against a regime they think may be unjust. And so on.
Her perpetual cockeyed optimism aside, Gaelen is a fundamentally likable character, and that fact saves the book from the long winded exposition, the determined reasonableness of characters who are supposed to be horribly prejudiced, and the more or less unbelievable collection of coincidences that pepper the story. The reader wants Gaelen to succeed, even though her Pollyanna routine does get a little cloying at times, and consequently, you keep turning the pages to find out what she does next. In addition, the slight subversion of the usual fantasy tropes adds a bit of spice to what would have otherwise been a fairly bland story, which makes Gaelen's Gold generally an enjoyable if unspectacular read, and gives hope that the authors will build on the framework they have started and improve it in future books in the series.
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