Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review - The Forever Knight by John Marco

Short review: Lukien is a knight who cannot die, so he takes a teenage girl as a squire and leads her into danger.

An immortal knight
Looks for a worthy mission
Gets his squire killed

Disclosure: I received this book as a 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: The Forever Knight is a fantasy novel centered around the titular character, also known as Lukien the Bronze Knight, an apparently immortal warrior bound to Malator, the spirit of the dead wizard contained inside of his magic sword. The novel is a fairly standard fantasy story complete with a questing knight, a squire with a memory problem, an unscrupulous merchant, and a evil warlord who comes with a sadistic henchman and an army of creepy half-dead soldiers. The story has definite strong points, with interesting set piece scenes that are generally interesting and well-executed, but has a few minor flaws, mostly involving some weak characterization and difficulty in transition scenes.

The book opens with Lukien busy hunting a Rass, a dangerous and giant snake-like creature, near the city of Jador. The difficulties of the hunt serve to define Lukien's somewhat lukewarm death-wish, and his odd love-hate relationship with Malator, and results in Lukien returning to the city victorious and in possession of the skin of a Rass. It quickly becomes apparent that The Forever Knight is the fourth book in the series, and that the collection of preexisting character relationships and established world-lore will shape Lukien's actions throughout the novel. Because the plot of this novel involves Lukien heading off into uncharted territory with only a preteen girl as his companion, this is not a huge issue, but early in the book the reader is confronted with a cast of established characters accompanied by little more than some perfunctory exposition as to who they are and how they fit in. And while there are glimmers that indicate that the story of how these characters got to this point might have been interesting, there is little in this volume that helps the reader feel the weight of that history. And this is unfortunate, because without that foundation, many of Lukien's actions seem to lack any sort of real motivation.

So, after returning to Jador, a city full of people who are immortal because the Akari, who seem to be somewhat mercurial guardian spirits, have elected to bind with them, Lukien moons over his lost love for a bit, and then meets up with his friends from the previous books and is told that he should go and become a knight-errant, probably in the Broken Lands because that's where there are adventures to be had and wrongs to be righted. Against the advice of Malator, Lukien decides to bring Cricket, a young girl from Akyre in the Broken Lands, as his squire. Cricket has lost her memory, and both she and Lukien think that taking her to the Broken Lands might unlock her hidden past. Malator, on the other hand, thinks that the Broken Lands are incredibly dangerous and it would be foolish to take a preteen girl into them. Based upon nothing more and a fairly undefined desire to do good deeds and a vague plan to restore Cricket's memory, Lukien packs up and hauls Cricket across the desert into the war-torn Broken Lands. And the somewhat ill-defined reasons motivating Lukien herald one of the recurring issues of The Forever Knight: Once Marco has gotten his characters to where he wants them to be, he is able to write interesting scenes, but transitioning from one scene to another frequently feels forced and artificial, with people taking actions for poorly defined and even more poorly articulated reasons. Lukien's fight with the Rass is interesting. The encounter between Lukien and Cricket and the desert caravan of Sariyah is interesting. Lukien and Cricket's brief stay in the city of Arad is interesting. But, by contrast, the links that move Lukien from one place to another are incredibly flimsy.

As a result, Lukien's character seems to drift through the plot of the book as events unfold around him. There is a good story here, featuring Anton the amoral merchant and his relationship with the tyrannical and power-crazed King Diriel which foments a war that draws in most of the Broken Kingdoms by the end. But Lukien himself seems to just wander aimlessly from place to place for much of the book. Lukien meets Marilius, a mercenary captain, who cryptically asks the knight for help, leading him to Anton, who cryptically explains that the merchant has been plagued by some sort of monster, which Malator had earlier cryptically warned Lukien about. lukien then heads off to confront the monster without much of a plan other than "ride up to it with my sword", a plan that somewhat predictably fails, because if that was a solid plan one would think that one of the dozens of mercenaries that Anton had hired to guard him might have been able to pull it off already. But this sort of floundering about without a plan seems to be standard for Lukien as he wanders about the Broken Lands. Lukien goes to meet Direl, and his creepy pedophile henchman Wrestler (who seems to have a fixation on Cricket), after tangling with the monster, Lukien thinks maybe he should investigate where it came from, and so on. One thing he doesn't do, and which he makes cryptic excuses for several times, is take Cricket to the one location in the Broken Lands that she seems to remember, despite her repeated requests to do so, and despite the fact that helping her recover her memory was the only actual plan Lukien had when he set out for the Broken Lands.

And this highlights the fact that Cricket isn't actually a character, but is rather a plot device. Cricket seems to exist in the story to be around to deliver some unexpected exposition concerning a strange piece of writing, and to provide Lukien with a reason to seek revenge against Diriel and Wrestler. This point is driven home when the mystery of Cricket's memory loss is solved and it turns out to have no bearing at all on the plot of the novel. Cricket is, for the most part, simply a convenient way to move Lukien about the countryside, and when her usefulness has expired, she is perfunctorily discarded from the narrative. To a certain extent this is also true of Malator, but since he is a spirit confined within a magical sword, the fact that he is a plot device is somewhat more justifiable. Malator seems to exist solely to provide Lukien with the necessary dribs and drabs of information required to keep the plot going, and to provide supernatural aid to keep Lukien alive when he runs hilariously dangerous risks. The problem is that other than the fact that the author doesn't want to let the reader in on information yet, there seems to be no reason for Malator to retreat into cryptic utterances when Lukien understandably asks what Malator's plan for him is, or when Lukien asks for pretty much any other information. This sort of cryptic adviser is a common trope in fantasy fiction, but, like here, it often doesn't make sense. There's no apparent character-driven reason for Malator to withhold what he knows from Lukien, other than perhaps a desire to annoy the knight that he purports to have such lofty plans for.

Fortunately, once Cricket leaves the story, the pace begins to pick up. Lucien, having meandered through the story up to this point, seems to focus on a goal, and takes an active role in shaping events, as opposed to his earlier pattern of indifferently allowing events to happen around him. When Lukien begins to take charge, the book seems to come to life and a pretty good fantasy war story is revealed, as he and his chosen side desperately try to scrape together friends and allies to confront Direl's larger army with its magically enhanced elite forces. There are a few puzzling plot contrivances even at this stage - for example, everyone seems surprised that Direl has been waging a successful war against their neighbors and Lukien seems to unravel the mystery of the deadly monster more or less by guessing, but these niggling issues are trampled under the hooves to the galloping plot as it rushes to its action-packed conclusion. Once again, the fact that this is the fourth book in the series comes in to play as fighting men arrive to aid Lukien in his endeavors, drawn by his reputation as a valiant warrior. But nothing Lukien does before these men arrive in this book would warrant such adulation, which means that anyone reading this book simply has to take it on faith that the aimless hero that wandered about for the first half of the book had done something worthwhile prior to that point.

I am somewhat concerned that my review of The Forever Knight may make it sound like it is a book I didn't enjoy. Let me be clear: This is a perfectly good fantasy book, with some decent characters, well-written scenes, and a plot that is interesting once it gets rolling. But throughout the book there seems to be the feeling that this is merely a placeholder for a series in transition. After the plot of this book is complete, Malator reveals to Lukien that the knight has a strange and unique power that has resulted from the loss of his own soul. The revelation of this power, it seems, is at the heart of Malator's purported plan for Lukien, and might have saved a lot of trouble had Malator revealed it to the hero earlier. In the end, it seems like this entire book has merely been a dilatory diversion intended to delay the introduction of the new and improved Lukien who will presumably be featured in future installments of the series. Even so, it is a reasonably enjoyable diversion that will entertain a fantasy fan. Those who have read and enjoyed previous books in the series will probably love this book. Those who have not should probably go and read them first before reading this one.

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  1. I liked his other books. Haven't read this one.

    1. I suspect that the earlier books in the series worked better than this particular one did, and I also suspect that later books in the series will as well. The snippets of back story relating to previous books and the foreshadowed hints of what might be in the future ones point towards the series being in transition from one kind of fantasy story to a very different one. And like most transitional books, this one is a little rough at times. In the context of the whole series, I'm guessing that this book will probably be the weak link, but that it will be acceptable as part of the longer narrative.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it overall. Thanks for being on the tour!

    1. While reading The Forever Knight I found myself wishing I had read the earlier books, so I could put some elements in context. Reading this made me want to go back and read the first three books in the series, which I suppose is one mark of a successful book.