Monday, January 10, 2011

Review - The Prophecy of Zephyrus by G.A. Hesse

Short review: A long, not very exciting story set in a fairy tale world with preadolescent sensibilities.

Travel to the past
Elves! Magic! Muks! Raks! Dragons!
Still a dull story

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway 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.

Full review: I think that there are a substantial number of young girls who spin themselves imaginary fairy kingdoms they can populate with winged horses that fly to the moon, castles of brave knights, queens, and forests with elves. Since these little girls have probably read The Wind in the Willows and The Chronicles of Narnia, they probably also populate their fairy lands with talking animals. Because knights and elves need enemies to bravely face they put in some evil sorcerers, fire breathing dragons, and scary insect people. At the center of this fairy world is, of course, the beautiful princess, perhaps a stand-in for the little girl herself. Once in a while, a little girl like this grows up and writes a book using her fairy kingdom as the setting. G.A. Hesse appears to have been one of these little girls who grew up and decided to become a writer, and The Prophecy of Zephyrus is the result.

Unfortunately, fantasies spun in the daydreams of young girls don't seem to result in much more than a mediocre story. The primary problem that The Prophecy of Zephyrus has as a book is that this being a world spun in a daydream, there can't really be very many bad things that happen to the characters in the story. The villain in the book goes to great lengths to abduct the beautiful ingenue, but since this is a daydream-based fairy tale, she is never threatened with any harm as a result. In effect, the villain simply wants to get our heroine to his tower so he can try to woo her because he is awed by her beauty, which seems like a fantasy a twelve-year old girl might spin. The heroes who set out to rescue her from being courted don't kill their enemies (although their enemies are spider-men and ant-men who humanity is more or less at war with, and who would happily eat them), but knock them out and tie them up. Granted, the villain's spider-men ambush a group of soldiers and kill them all (and apparently eat them), but the soldiers are a faceless group that are eliminated off-stage, so the impact is pretty minor. On the other hand, the worst a supposedly scary fire-breathing dragon can do is shorten a small animal's tail.

The other central problem with the book is that it is just not that well-written. The first of these problems is that much of the writing itself is stilted, especially the dialogue. Much of the dialogue is incredibly stiff, although the style of dialogue lurches between stiff formality to very weak attempts to make the speech more colloquial (by having characters say "ya" instead of "you" a lot). One speech oddity that crops up over and over is characters addressing the person they are speaking with by name. In general, when two people are having a conversation at which no other person is present, they don't say things like this bit of text found on page 4 after a half page of dialogue: "What I want to know is, who wrote that on the rock, and why? Tell me what to do, Will. What's going on? How can I get rid of these bad dreams?" This sort of gratuitous insertion of character names into conversation is a fairly common pattern in the book, and it just grates on the reader's nerves. Another fairly annoying recurring writing foible is the tendency to italicize the names of places or things (although not always consistently). Names of places, translations of names, and so on get this treatment, although not every time, and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to what gets italicized and what doesn't, and when.

The second writing problem is a lack of attention to detail. The book itself is centered around the prophecy of the title. But the book never explains who Zephyrus was, or why anyone pays attention to his prophecy. Oddly, the writer seems to go out of her way to try to keep the exact nature of the prophecy a secret in the early part of the book, revealing it in full on page 91. But the text of the prophecy is found just before the table of contents, making the secrecy kind of moot, since any reader who looked at the beginning pages in the book will have already seen the prophecy. Making the entire prophecy element kind of silly is the fact that the prophecy doesn't actually contribute anything to the story. Characters don't make decisions based on the prophecy, no one consults it to guide their actions. They just see the male lead show up, decide he's the guy who is going to save everyone, and sit back to let it happen. The prophecy is sort of Nostradamus-like in that no one can use it to predict what is going to happen, as the meaning of the text only becomes clear after the predicted events have already happened. The hero has a horse that is telepathic, although why some animals can talk telepathically, some can talk normally, and some can do both is never explained. The horse pops into and out of the story-line, and eventually just drops out of the story. Early in the story we are introduced to malevolent trolls, and slightly more ambiguously evil goblins, but the villain doesn't recruit them as his soldiers for wholly unexplained reasons, instead making insects and lions into men. Once the spider-men, ant-men, and lion-men show up, the trolls and goblins vanish, never to be seen again. Over and over again, elements are introduced to the story, hang around for a bit, and are then dropped.

And this doesn't even begin to deal with the oddities of plot and characters featured in the book. The main character is Oberon Griffin, a character presumably from our modern day world who is whisked away to the fairy land of Windermere. Once there, he is tagged as the central figure in an all-important prophecy, and sets about his adventures. In keeping with the stiff dialogue, the various characters around him patiently spend copious amounts of text dumping information upon Oberon (or Obie, as he prefers to be called), making for some fairly tedious background scenes. This being a fairy tale story, everyone Obie meets immediately accepts his explanation of being transported by magic to the kingdom, and the Queen of Windermere takes a shine to him, giving him clothes, training and a horse. One thing Obie brings with him from the modern world is his "Raptor", a special and powerful slingshot, which the locals are improbably impressed with (as it is less effective as a weapon than, say, a bow, a weapon they seem to have plenty of, due to its non-lethal nature). Obie is more or less a wish-fulfillment character - once in Windermere he discovers that he can communicate via telepathy, discovers that he has elvish blood in his veins giving him superior abilities, loses the limp that has plagued him for his whole life, and falls in love with the princess.

The main problem facing Windermere is the "celestial dimming", meaning that the stars, the moon, and the sun are slowly fading. This is caused, apparently, by a cabal of six evil sorcerers, including the antagonist of this book, the evil Torolf. This seems to be a pretty stupid plan for the evildoers, since everyone pretty much accepts that once the various celestial lights go out, all life on Earth will end, which would seem to make the villainous plans amount to little more than an elaborate form of suicide. Instead of setting out to figure out how to prevent this inexplicably stupid plan, the good inhabitants of Windermere place all their hopes on flying to the moon to gather a crystal to pair with a hidden crystal they think they know the location of to somehow fix the problem. I say "somehow" because none of them actually know what the two crystals do, either individually or together. Meanwhile, Obie sets about learning swordplay, getting into arguments with the soldiers he spends his time with, and attending royal meals and festivals. As an aside, one thing that is odd about the book is the enormous verbiage spent discussing what everyone has for dinner. Despite the story supposedly taking place in the winter, with all the lights in the sky getting dimmer and colder (presumably making winter even harsher than normal), everyone almost always seems to have plenty to eat, and Hesse seems to feel the need to describe it all. Another oddity is that the horses and windlords (or winged horses) seem to eat nothing but clover in the book.

As noted before, the princess-figure is kidnapped, and Obie sets out with no one but his telepathic horse to rescue her. He comes across a lion-man to help him, but like most elements of the story, the fact that his companion is a lion-man turns out to be of little more than cosmetic consequence. Tau, as the lion-man calls himself, is more or less just a big strong guy. He fights with a sword, eats human food, acts like a normal man, and pretty much behaves more or less like Little John to Obie's Robin Hood. Along the way, they also pick up a mole named Mole to accompany them, who turns out to pretty much behave like a human in a mole suit. The odd thing about the quest is that almost all of the book is spent describing the travels of the characters, what they eat, and where they camp. The few times the heroes run across bad guys, they spend all their time running away from them. At one point they suffer through a blizzard and run out of food, but once they find some friends, that sort of privation is immediately forgotten. Once they reach their objective, they sort of run through the actual rescue in an almost perfunctory manner.

Of course, having rescued the damsel, the heroes have to foil the evil wizard. Once again, large volumes of space are spent on moving people about, until everyone is finally ready to confront the evil villain and his dragon, and then everything ends in a hurried deus ex machina ending. Adding insult to injury, after the villain's armies vanish in a puff of smoke (almost literally), he is killed, and all the bad things that happened to people are undone, the budding love triangle of the story is resolved in a Return of the Jedi type twist that is no less groan-inducing than George Lucas' original. Even the terrible memories of his own mother's death that haunt Obie are whisked away in a rather odd scene. Of course, after Obie returns to the real world, he's been changed for the better - where he was geeky, he becomes popular, where he was beset by a limp, he becomes a star athlete, where he fumbled over the girl of his dreams, he now confidently courts her, and so on. In effect, everything wraps up in a bow in the last ten or twenty pages of the book, as everything bad is basically washed away by overwhelming magical aid.

Although the book has serious problems, it does have some redeeming qualities. Though the book is mostly generic fantasy, the idea of having spider-men, called raks, and ant-men, called muks, as the villains' army is kind of unusual. Unfortunately, like many things in the book the fact that they are spider-men and ant-men is not particularly relevant (although the spider-men do have poisonous fangs). They don't seem to gain any particular advantage from having multiple limbs, and their one big advantage, the ability to climb sheer walls, never really comes into play, and they prove to have a huge weakness that makes them entirely useless as an army at the end of the book. The idea of the villain darkening the world is not a new one, featuring prominently in The Silmarillion for example, but it isn't a bad villainous plot (except for the fact that everyone on Earth, including the villain, will die as a result). Some opportunities seem to be missed - the "Shadow People" talked about in the book turn out to be little more than stereotypical Native American imitations that are really good at hiding, instead of people made of shadows, which would have been much more interesting.

In the end, this book seems like a missed opportunity. With a little more care, and a little more imagination, it could have been a pretty good young adult fantasy story. As it is, the unpolished nature of the setting, the extraordinarily slow movement of the plot, a wooden villain with an inexplicably dumb plan, the deus ex machina ending, coupled with some fairly stiff writing makes for a mediocre book. The fantasy elements are mostly bland and generic, which is not a failing in and of itself, but a book built on a fantasy world more or less interchangeable with a dozen others has to have a strong story, and this one simply does not. Perhaps because the book seems to be built on a child's daydream, nothing bad can happen, or seem like it is going to happen, and as a result, very little does happen other than a lot of walking around, a lot of exposition, and a lot of descriptions of dinner. This, unsurprisingly, does not make for a very interesting book.

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  1. I haven't heard of this book, but I'm sorry to hear you weren't impressed with it. Your points are good ones, and a reminder to writers to stay on our toes and write great stuff!

  2. I think you have not heard of the book because I think it is self-published, or published by a vanity press. Which I think caused some of the problems. A good editor probably could have helped the author quite a bit by pointing out most of the problems I identified.

    One of the main problems I have found with a lot of fantasy is that some authors seem to think that fantasy is easy to write. Just throw in some elves and magic, have a hero with a magic sword and the story writes itself! But in my opinion writing good fantasy is quite difficult. You have to sell the setting as believable. You have to differentiate your fantasy from the thousands of Tolkien imitators out there. You have to be internally consistent and respect the reader and not basically pull a fast one by producing some unforeshadowed solution at the end of the story.