Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review - Dragons of the Valley by Donita K. Paul

Short review: The inhabitants of Chiril supposedly wage a desperate war to keep their incompetent royal family on the throne. But first, they take some time to sit on their behinds to have tea and daggarts. Then they show how to win a war by sitting around in a tavern not doing much. Because Wulder will save you if you just sit on your ass long enough.

The Grawl is scary
Luncheon to foil the bad guys
Tipper is now queen

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. 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.

Dragons of the Valley is the sequel to The Vanishing Sculptor (read review), and the second book in the Valley of the Dragons series which is a prequel to The DragonKeeper Chronicles series. I say this to point out that if you haven't read the previous six tedious books set in Donita K. Paul's world of pseudo-Christian preaching, this book will be nigh incomprehensible if you try to pick it up and read it first. I know this from direct experience, having tried to do exactly that. On the other hand, none of Donita K. Paul's books are really worth reading to begin, so anyone who simply skips them isn't really missing much. To be perfectly honest, the only reasons I kept slogging through these books were (a) a sense of obligation to properly review this book, having accepted it as an Early Reviewer Book, and (b) I kept hoping against hope that they would get better.

So, the question is, did they get better? The answer, unfortunately is "not really". Like all of the other books Mrs. Paul has produced, the book is little more than badly presented Christian apologetics dressed up in fantasy clothing. Though there is a meandering and fairly generic story contained in its pages, the book wanders off to extended digressions about the "principles of Wulder" and unconvincing conversion revelations at the drop of a hat. The overwhelming blandness of the story and the annoying and empty preaching combine to result in a book that isn't even bad enough to despise, but is merely bad enough to dislike.

The book starts out with three characters being given cryptic instructions to steal and separate the statues that were rejoined at great effort in the previous book. Why must they steal the statues? They are just told by the kimens who come and tell them in the middle of the night that they are "in danger" and expected to hop to following these diminutive messengers without question. One of the odder elements of the books is that kimens, as a race, somehow seem to get messages directly from Wulder. Why? Who knows, because it is never explained. No one in the books even really considers to ask the question "why are the kimens always getting messages from Wulder, and how do we know they are actually messages from Wulder, and not just random stuff the kimens invent". Even in Chiril, which is supposed to be very different from Amara because the inhabitants of Chiril have not been "shown the light" of Wulder, everyone seems to think kimens have some sort of special insight. This is yet another of the myriad of ways that Chiril remains exactly the same as Amara. It seems that, having created one fairly bland fantasy culture, Mrs. Paul decided that creating another would be too taxing, and just transferred most everything about the culture of the various imaginary races from one continent to the other.

So, having stolen the statues and cavalierly separated them on the say-so of a trio of random kimens (which in the last book was something that threatened to cause the destruction of the entire world), the heroes are then transported to a secret kimen village (which turns out to be not-so-secret after all, not that this matters) where the statues are reunited. At this point the characters are told that the statues have to be hidden away because the neighboring country of Baardack is threatening to invade, and apparently having the statues fall into the hands of a different hereditary dynasty would be a problem. Presumably this is because the rulers of Baardack or competent, because the rulers of Chiril clearly are not. One also wonders, given the extraordinary amount of pain and suffering that the separation of the statues causes, and since Wulder is supposed to be responsible for all of the events that happen in the world, exactly how big of a jerk is Wulder that he let this all happen. In short, by being responsible for everything that happens in the book, Wulder comes off as a complete dick who seems to revel in the death, pain, and suffering of war. But apparently that's okay, so long as the characters in the book learn the right lessons as a result.

The bulk of the book is punctuated with the drumbeats of impending war between Chiril and Baardack. Everyone knows that war is imminent, including King Yellat of Chiril. Agents from Baardack infiltrate into Chiril and begin making prominent officials disappear. So what is King Yellat's response? To send out Verrin Schope, his dimwitted wife, and a useless giant parrot to hang out in a tavern and try to figure out what is going on. Except everyone seems to know what is going on: everyone figures out almost immediately who the enemy agents are when they stumble into the tavern Verrin and his wife are sitting in. But do they call in agents of the law to apprehend the miscreants? Nope. They just let them continue killing people while trying to figure out how they are getting away with their evil schemes. Here's a clue: they are getting away with their evil schemes because you, Verrin Schope, are letting them. Where Mrs. Paul thinks she is including some masterful espionage intrigue, she just makes the story ludicrous. Verrin and Beccaroon don't have to ferret out how their enemies are doing what they are doing, or lay low, or otherwise keep themselves incognito - they are operating within their own country with the authority of the national government at their back. They can just have the oafish bad guys arrested, which would put an end to the disappearances (which turn out to be assassinations, so by sitting on their hands and wings, Verrin and Beccaroon allow dozens of people to be killed, and a later scene makes this crystal clear, but all Beccaroon does is express momentary regret that his gross incompetence resulted in a wandering man's death at the hands of some ruffians). Making this even stupider, they know that the head of Baardack's forces, Doremattris Groddenmitersay (did I mention how much the names of Mrs. Paul's characters suck) is lurking about. But do they try to stop him and decapitate the leadership of the invasion force? Of course not, so chalk another one up for the message in favor of complete passivity that runs through all of Mrs. Paul's writing.

Meanwhile, the Wizard Fenworth (one of the trio who helped steal the three statues near the beginning of the book) observes a strange and unique creature apparently in the employ of King Odidoddex of Baarack (among her other "gifts", Mrs. Paul is terrible at coming up with names) that is called simply "The Grawl", a creature presented as a feral, almost animal-like hunter that serves as a mercenary. So naturally Fenworth takes one of the three statues and heads off to investigate "The Grawl" (and he's always referred to this way, with a capitalized "The"). Remember, these are the three statues that must stay together or the life of Verrin Schope and the entire existence of the world is endangered. And Fenworth more or less cavalierly picks one up and heads off for a few weeks to follow an interesting creature as it murderously rampages across the countryside. And it turns out that having the statues separated causes a moral malaise to spread throughout Chiril as well, hampering the ability of the nation to prepare to defend itself against the impending invasion, but oddly seems to have no similar effect on Baardack. I suppose that God, I mean Wulder, is a Chiril partisan or something. Of course, Fenworth doesn't actually try to stop "The Grawl", and in the one confrontation with him just sends him away, which allows "The Grawl" to surreptitiously kill dozens of other people. Perhaps it is because they seem to assume that Wulder will make everything turn out okay in the end, but Mrs. Paul's protagonists never seem to consider the consequences of their own inaction.

At the same time, the artist Graddapotmorphit Bealomondore (once again, I'll note how much Mrs. Paul's character names suck), having been more or less randomly gifted with the Sword of Valor by Fenworth, heads out on a "quest" with the librarian Librettowit, the almost completely useless Princess Tipper, and a couple of interchangeable kimens. Along the way, Tipper breaks her ankle, they run afoul of more Baardackian agents, they find Fenworth, and Paladin pops in to drop off a dragon for Tipper and report that the war has actually started. This dire news, of course, prompts Fenworth to take the statues and Librettowit and head off to build a temple for them. Because, as the most powerful wizard in Chiril, it wouldn't make sense for him to help out with the actual war effort. Instead, he runs off to take a month or two to make an elaborate underground sanctuary in a remote part of Chiril. Meanwhile, they send the artist with no military skill and a magic sword and an incompetent princess to join in the war effort. And the only thing that makes sense about that decision is that King Yellat and his trusted advisers seem to be even more incompetent, with Verrin Schope (improbably) and Paladin (inevitably) being the only two who are capable. Because of this, King Yellat doesn't listen to them, and the war goes horribly badly for the Chirilians. One spends a good part of the novel wondering exactly why everyone seems to think it is so important to Wulder's plans to keep the incompetent royal family of Chiril in power. Not that the reader gets to see any of this, because, as usual, all of the action in the book takes place off-stage, and is only reported to the characters in the book (and thus to the reader) as news after the fact. Even the fall of the capital of the kingdom and the death of King Yellat is delivered to the reader as second hand news.

The war might not have gone so badly for the Chirilians, even with their incompetent leadership, but as usual in a Donita Paul book, everyone seems to stop every couple of pages to have some tea, cakes, and fried fish. And Mrs. Paul feels the need to import more of her made-up food jargon too. Verrin Schope has an innkeeper make beet, carrot, and onion soup, and makes sure to inform everyone that it is chukkajoop. Hollee the kimen cooks jimmin chicken, because just cooking chicken wouldn't be jargon-laden enough. Fenworth introduces daggarts to Chiril, because just eating doughnuts wouldn't be "fantasy" enough. And so on. Even the beastly and supposedly feral "Grawl" turns out to be a dandy who keeps a secret fortress where he takes hot baths, peruses his extensive library, and eats tasty soup with roasted lamb. Everyone, it seems is a gourmet who stops off for hours to take in a seven course meal in the middle of waging a desperate war.

Even with all the stopping to eat leisurely meals, the Chirilians might have fared better in their war if they hadn't always been stopping to gaze in wonder at the world around them and then make the leap from the fact that trees are pretty to the assumption that therefore there must be a creator deity who loves them. This book, more than all the others that came before it in the Amara/Chiril based series, contains some of the most unconvincing "conversion" scenes where characters "find the joy in Wulder" and become believers for little reason other than it makes them feel good in their tummies. These conversion scenes take place in between the extended tedious discussions concerning the principles of Wulder. Actually, lectures concerning the principles of Wulder where Fenworth and Schope drone on with vague and pretty much worthless platitudes. Even the Sword of Valor gets preachy, spewing out random, cryptic messages that the characters mistake for deep, meaningful advice.

So, after all this fumbling about, it turns out that Chiril is defeated, but in the end, Bealomondore and Paladin organize a defense of the Valley of the Dragons against an invading force spearheaded by "The Grawl" and his force of shoergats. "Wait", I hear you cry, "what are schoergats"? I understand your confusion. After all, "shoergats" were not listed among the catalogued seven "high" races and seven "low" races that we were told were perfectly balanced against one another way back in DragonSpell (read review), and adding a new race would change everything with disastrous consequences. But that was before we added meech dragons, minnekins, and grand parrots to the mix, so one more random race thrown in seems to be about par for the course at this point. Shoergats, we are told, are a race of flying creatures that love dragon meat so much and are so ferocious that they hunted dragons almost to extinction on Chiril. But when the big showdown between "The Grawl's" shoergats and Paladin's corps of dragon riders takes place, the shoergats are soundly defeated without any significant losses on the dragon side, and of course, the battle takes place almost entirely off-stage. In the end, "The Grawl" is defeated (and despite The Grawl being obsessed with killing Fenworth, he doesn't even get close to the wizard, being defeated instead by Bealomodore and his magic sword), the invading forces are defeated, and then in a handful of pages the entire fortunes of war change and Baardack is defeated. Tipper, through a bizarre and contrived succession law becomes queen of Chiril, and then Paladin shows up out of the blue to propose marriage to her. Making the Paladin marriage proposal even more bizarre is that through the book, the character who had spent the most time with Tipper was the artist-turned-hero Bealomondore. Mrs. Paul could have had a cliched, although slightly more interesting plot line where Tipper realizes that her infatuation with Paladin is based on nothing more than an immature girl's idealized fantasies and she is actually in love with the man who has spent time with her, who is mostly responsible for converting her to believing in Wulder, who stoood by and protected her, and who has grown from a callow youth into a responsible hero. But no. In Mrs. Paul's world, the idealized adolescent fantasies win out. After an entire book of tedium, all of the plot elements are wrapped up in the most contrived manner possible in about a dozen or so pages.

Basically, this is not a very good book, but this is not unexpected, because none of the previous books set in Mrs. Paul's Chiril/Amara setting are very good books. The sloppy world building, evidenced by the random addition of the shoergats, just shows the level of contempt Mrs. Paul has for the genre she has dressed her preachy pseudo-Christian lecture as. The characters who are supposed to be "colorful" like Princess Peg and Wizard Fenworth are annoying (and in Fenworth's case, come off as idiotic rather than eccentric). The characters who are supposed to be "inspiring", like Paladin, are horribly bland. The characters we are meant to empathize with, like Tipper and Bealomondore are generally unlikable or merely pathetic. The story is a fairly standard fantasy invasion story, only made unusual by the extreme incompetence of the good guys, and made tedious by the inclusion of heaping shovelfuls of didactic pseudo-Christian preaching. As usual, the Wulder described in the book seems to be a complete dick, despite the novel's continual attempts to talk about how loving and kind he is. Of course, he's not so loving and kind to the thousands of people killed, maimed, and wounded by the war he let fester. This book seems like it is singularly ineffective at conveying a message that would be of interest to a nonbeliever, and the deity described in the book is such a jerk that it seems to me that it would offend a believer. In the end, there is just not any audience that I could see to recommending this book to.

Previous book in the series: The Vanishing Sculptor

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