Monday, October 17, 2011

Review - Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville

Short review: A collection of characters mill about and accomplish not much of anything. And the unicorns' enemy is closer than they think.

Whispers in the dark
Quests to find centaurs and Mom
Nothing is resolved

Full review: Dark Whispers is the third book in the four book Unicorn Chronicles series, and as seems to happen to Coville in the third book in four book series, it is something of a let down. This seems similar to the let down that took place in The Search for Snout, the third volume in Coville's four book Alien Adventures series. The book has lots of movement, but it seems strangely disjointed and seems to be little more than filler holding the space between the actual stories contained in Song of the Wanderer and The Last Hunt.

Picking up where Song of the Wanderer left off, Cara and the newly installed unicorn Queen have to deal with the fact that at the end of the last volume Beloved obtained an amulet that will allow her to open a gate from Earth to Luster and invade with her hunters on a mission to eradicate the unicorns. Griswold finds a couple of apparently deleted passages in the Unicorn Chronicles which point towards a possible solution, and another human living in Luster  (in fact, the oldest human living in Luster) cryptically recites an ancient poem and asserts that the centaurs know the rest of the story. This, of course, forms the basis for the main story of the book which sends Cara, Griswold, M'Gama, Lightfoot, Finder, Bella, and the Squijum off to the Valley of the Centaurs to ask the centaur King Chiron to fill them in. As usual, the centaurs apparently hold some animosity towards the unicorns who seem to be unable to get along with any of their neighbors.

Because a quest to get a story from recalcitrant centaurs apparently doesn't provide enough meat for a book, there are a number of other story lines in the book that are more or less connected to Cara's quest. Cara's father Ian is on the hunt for the entrance to the Ruby Prison to find and free Cara's mother. In another story line the delvers are busy trying to fulfill the wishes of their insane king who is under the influence of a mysterious voice. And in a third thread the Dimblethum seems to have issues with the same mysterious voice. Complicating matters is that as the story moves along, Cara's group fragments as well, sending M'Gama off in one direction, Bella and Finder off in another, and Lightfoot in yet another. One of the consequences of having more than a half-dozen adventures all happening simultaneously is that not much happens in any of them, which is the primary problem with the book. Not only that, most of the various story lines don't even really come to a conclusion, simply being put on hold in the middle of the action with their resolution tabled until The Last Hunt.

And it is this lack of resolution that makes this installment of the series seem like little more than filler. Certainly Cara is able to figure some stuff out, but even finding out the answer to the mystery she was assigned to unravel doesn't seem to lead much of any where. Ian's quest leads him on an extensive journey during which he pays a substantial personal cost, and in which he is linked up with some new and interesting companions, but he seems to have had no plan concerning what to do once he reached his goal. Similarly, Cara seems to have had no plan as to what to do once she reached her goal, a condition that seems to afflict several other characters in the book. In fact, the only character who seems at all clear about what they intend to do and how they are going to accomplish it is the villain Beloved, which may explain why the heroes always seem to be flailing about uselessly while the villains seem to get things done.

This is not to say nothing happens in the books: the good guys suffer some notable casualties, information is uncovered that is likely to be of use in later books, and most everyone actually finds what they were looking for. As serendipity seems to be a common element in the stories, the various individuals that the main characters run across in their travels all seem to be more important than they might appear to be at first glace. The unicorns who aren't featured in the story seem to be oddly passive though - as do the rest of the inhabitants of Luster. Once would think that given their common antipathy towards humanity, the dragons, centaurs, and other mythological creatures would be making a common cause to try to repel the pending invasion, but if this has been happening, it goes entirely unmentioned in the book.

While The Unicorn Chronicles as a whole is a fun and interesting series, Dark Whispers is the weakest book of the bunch. While a lot of elements critical to the eventual denouement of the story are introduced and developed in this book, the book on its own is little more than a bridge between other, better books. Dark Whispers begins in the middle of the story, and ends in the middle of the story, and thus would be almost impossible to read on its own. As such, while it is an integral part of The Unicorn Chronicles, it simply does not hold up on its own as anything more than a mediocre book.

Previous book in the series: Song of the Wanderer
Subsequent book in the series: The Last Hunt

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