Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review - White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors by Irina Lopatina

Short review: Horrible monsters are released upon Vraigo's world by a deathless sorcerer and the only weapon that can stop them is the magical sword Urart. But Urart is now in the twenty-first century and Vraigo has to find it.

Horrble monsters
And a lost magical sword
Quest in the future

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.

Full review: White Raven is a young adult fantasy that is somewhat notable because Irina Lopatina is Russian. This has the beneficial effect of making the fantasy slightly unusual, as all of the fantasy elements are derived from Russian folklore as opposed to the more common Tolkien derivatives that dominate standard fantasy novels. On the other hand, this has the somewhat less beneficial effect of making some of the language used in the book somewhat less than artfully composed. Whether the awkward language was the result of a non-native English speaker writing in what for Irina not her mother tongue, or the result of her first writing the book in Russian and then having it translated is not clear. These bits of clumsy phrasing aside, the book is an enjoyable folklore laden tale about a magically gifted hero who must overcome his uncle's disdain as well as magically endowed monsters to recover the one weapon that has the ability to stop the sorcerous assault upon his homeland.

The hero of the novel is Vraigo, the nephew of Vlady, the Grand Duke of Areya. His father, the Grand Duke's brother, died when Vraigo was young, and the young prince was raised alongside his two cousins Tagas and Seles. But Vraigo is something of an odd duck, not content with the sword practice of the training field, he runs off every day to study under the tutelage of Agar, a friendly magus who helps awaken the ability to see the "blue veil" in the young prince, which is how humans see and interact with the magical realm. Agar is visited by a mysterious magus and vanishes in short order, leaving Vraigo to mature into a wielder of magical abilities on his own.

The story then jumps forward several years where we find Vraigo and his cousins have grown into men. Tagas and Seles have both joined their father's fighting forces, but the magically endowed Vraigo prefers to walk the paths of the nearby forest with his druid friend Belsha tracking down and dealing with the more inimical denizens of the wood: Pikshas, rusalkas, werewolves, yagas, and worse. Vraigo's choice of vocation is a great disappointment to his uncle the Grand Duke, because in the Grand Duke's estimation if Vraigo were brave, he would join the army and lead men on the battlefield. This is based upon the Grand Duke's suspicion that the powers asserted by magi are just made up, which seems to be an odd objection given that the Grand Duke lives in a world in which exotic monsters like werewolves and witches are demonstrably real. This objection seems even odder when it is revealed that the Grand Duke relies upon magical griffons to guard his treasure room, including his magical sword Urart. In our own history, being interested in learning was often seen as "unmanly" by those of a more brawny inclination. But in a world in which the magically inclined can summon fiery salamanders to burn their enemies, it seems like the military applications of knowledge would alter this perception.

In any event, Vraigo must deal with his uncle's disapproval and his cousins' mild derision while going about protecting Areya from the various magical threats that lurk in the nearby forest,  swamp, and mountains. After an expedition to an abandoned gnomish city with Belsha where they pick up some finely crafted gnomish castoffs. Vraigo meanders through the first half of the story trying to figure out why the gnomes and other "peaceful" magical inhabitants of the forest and mountains seem to be disappearing. During this section, one of the weaknesses of the book crops up as characters seem to amble into and out of the story more or less at random. Vraigo starts with Belsha as his sidekick, but later Belsha is incapacitated and Vraigo takes up with a dravalyanka named Shi-Shi. Along the way a werewolf named Kenush shows up to befriend Vraigo, help him out of a tight scrape or two, and then wanders out of the narrative. The Grand Duke's magically inclined youngest son Rohan pops up along with the scholar Estevah to help Vraigo track down the source of the mysterious influx of evil creatures, and then both characters are sidelined. While some of this character shuffling is probably attributable to the fact that White Raven is intended to be the first book of a planned trilogy, and as a result, some characters and story lines need to be introduced at this stage that will only pay off in later books, this game of musical characters is still distracting.

Vraigo determines that a koschei - a magus who has figured out a way to use his magical gifts to make himself immortal - is responsible for all the troubles. But his search for the evil magus is interrupted when the magical sword Urart, the only weapon that seems to be effective against the strange new magical beasts that have shown up to terrorize the populace, is stolen from the Grand Duke's treasury. While the Grand Duke and his soldiers set off to engage in a futile fight against the invading monsters, Vraigo heads off to try to track down the location of the sword. Of course, since Vraigo is trying to locate the only weapon that can actually damage the monsters rather than charging off to get killed in a pointless act of machismo like the rest of them, the Grand Duke and all of his soldiers sneer at Vraigo and call him a coward. While this does build a little bit of dramatic tension, it mostly makes the "martial" characters seem somewhat dim-witted.

While chasing after the sword, Vraigo is directed to a lair of tanars by the gnomes who originally stole it and plunges headlong after them. After locating the sword, Vraigo and Shi-Shi charge into a mob of tanars and are quickly overwhelmed and knocked out. Inexplicably, the two wake up in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the details of how getting knocked on the head in a cave causes Vraigo to be thrown forward several hundred years in time will be explored in a later part of the series, but in this volume, he simply gets knocked out and wakes up to find himself in our world. Note that although I said that he is thrown forward in time from his fantasy medieval home into the twenty-first century, this is only an assumption on my part, and an assumption that the characters in the book make as well. There are some hints that Vraigo may have actually gone backwards in time, with our familiar modern world serving as the mysterious ancestors of Vraigo's time.

Whether his trip to the twenty-first century is a trip to the future or the past, it is also the weakest part of the book. Although Vraigo's turn as a fish out of water seems somewhat promising, Nik and Lera, the two characters he befriends in his search for Urart, are fairly bland and uninteresting. This is not surprising, since almost everything in the generic unnamed city that Vraigo knocks about in is bland and uninteresting. This may have been an intentional choice on the part of the author, to try to contrast the magical nature of Vraigo's home epoch with the more mundane modern era, but if so, it was done in such a subtle way as to be almost invisible. The modern era portion of the book does provide an interesting twist when it is revealed that even though there is almost no magic in our world, that the various magical beings that Vraigo is familiar with still lurk in our society, even if they themselves don't realize their true nature: a collection of street thugs turns out to actually be a pack of werewolves, an aging nightclub owner is revealed to be a yaga, and so on. This, plus Vraigo's observation that the movie posters in Nik's room depict the magical creatures of ancient Areya, serves to connect the two portions of the story. But this connection doesn't really go anywhere other than to reinforce that Areya and the unnamed city Nik hails from coexist in the same geographic location, albeit separated temporally.

The plot in the modern era proceeds fairly rapidly. Nik and Vraigo first stumble about trying to raise some cash, then they join up with Lera and head off to an antiquities museum. After a little bit of internet research and a lot of serendipity the trio engage in an improbable heist to recover the sword and then Vraigo walks off into the woods, at which point the book ends abruptly. Given that this is the first book in a planned trilogy, leaving plot points unresolved is to be expected. Even with that caveat, however, White Raven seems to cut off prematurely as soon Vraigo has gotten his hands on Urart. This abrupt ending, combined with some fairly awkward phrasing that likely resulted from being translated from Russian to English, makes for a jarring finish to an otherwise enjoyable adventure.

Overall, White Raven: The Sword of Northern Ancestors is a pleasant although oddly flawed book. While one generally expects that the opener to a trilogy will contain a fair amount of exposition and unresolved story lines, White Raven seems to have entirely too much left up in the air when the reader arrives at the final page and Vraigo has not even formulated a plan for returning to his own time period and yet leaves Nik and Lera behind as he walks off into the woods. It is quite possible that once the remaining two installments of the series are published that the complete story will turn out to be excellent, however, based solely on what is in this volume, it can only be described as a pleasant but merely average book.

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