I might have mentioned at some point how deeply bored I get during fight scenes in books. The more the author tries to make them exciting by including lots of detail, marking a battle stroke by stroke and blood droplet by blood droplet, the more utterly bored I get.
There was a lot of fighting in this book.
It’s one of my favorite conceits, the idea of someone being whisked from one world to another where they have to find allies and figure out which side they’re on and so on. I wish this had taken advantage of the idea better.
Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that nobody trusted anybody from the beginning. Everybody tromped through the landscape just completely brassed off with everyone else, making hollow threats and snarky remarks, and nobody told anybody anything for chapters and chapters. “Why are you helping us?” Growl: “I have my reasons.” *sigh*
And the whole book was a trail of question marks, not in terms of unanswered questions (though there are plenty of those as well) but more of “What??” moments. It just didn’t make sense that a boy from 1944 Earth could see a little dragon, as he does on his first morning, and never say anything to anyone for days. It doesn’t make sense that he never talked about the dreams he kept having (to the point that I dreaded every time the author sent him to bed), especially after Jonas told him his mother used to have prophetic dreams. It made no sense that Jonas never asked how much time had passed since he left – and the book never said, as far as I’m aware. (I might have zoned out at some point while listening, but I don’t think so. Wait, there it is at 6 1/2 hours into the audiobook: more than 500 years.) And it took forever for all of them to discuss the brief period before they all went through the portal back to Whatsit. It made no sense that Ethan never protested what Jonas said about his mother – he knew the people who raised him were not his blood parents, but there should have been at least one squawk of “what?!” when it seemed like Jonas knew who his birth mother was – and he never so much as acknowledged it. It didn’t make sense that Ethan also never asked about elves and dwarfs (or did the author use the Tolkien-esque “dwarves”? Probably); granted, in 1944, pre-Tolkien, maybe it wasn’t such a Thing, but Ethan still should have known what they are, and been surprised they were real, and want to know more. It’s silly that Ethan trompled through this fantasy land with a sword on his hip, but though he spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to use a magical ability he might not even have, it never occurred to anyone to teach him the rudiments of how to fight with a blade. Ever. That’s … just dumb. (The only advice given Ethan is a less pithy version of GRRM’s “Stick ’em with the pointy end”. Hmm… The HBO GOT episode aired 6/5/11; Game of Thrones was published 8/1/96. Dragonvein was published in 2015. Gosh. I smell a … coincidence.)
(The first book in the Dragonvein series was only published just over a year ago, and it’s already up to book five? Wow.)
Names like “Cynthia” and “Jonas” in the midst of this setting – Medieval Fantasy™ – were possibly more jarring than the ones people like to make up and fill with apostrophes and random capital letters.
Ethan came from a pre-Tolkien date, but Brian D. Anderson does not, and my boredom turned to annoyance as Ethan’s introduction to the elves strongly echoed a certain scene in Mirkwood. Maybe Ethan grows up to come back to Earth as Tolkien, and that’s why the elves were almost indistinguishable from those of Middle-earth (except for what sounded like comically large ears – seriously, I wouldn’t want to try to depict that. It would be almost impossible to make them look legit). There was even something damned close to the Book of Mazarbul. Honestly, I would think a fantasy author would make a powerful effort to avoid close brushes with Tolkien, out of pride if nothing else.
Even more than of fight scenes, I’m bored by So-Evil-for-the-Sake-of-Evil. Even Nazis, the original enemy Ethan was fighting, were not uniformly evil, and not all evil just because evil was fun; it was (technically) for the Fatherland, for the Fuhrer, for the good of the many in their minds.
And even more than that I’m bored by a plot which consists largely of Our Hero getting himself and his friends into deep trouble, and then having his chestnuts pulled out of the fire by unexpected intervention. After the third, and fourth, and especially the fifth or sixth time, then really there was no more tension to any situation, no suspense of how are they going to get themselves out of this?! – because I learned to rest assured they were not going to get themselves out. They would be gotten out. Danger was irrelevant. The good guys might end up a bit battered, but someone always came rushing up to save the day. My eyes – they roll.
It’s strange that while the author focused obsessively on fights, two of the biggest conflicts – including the most climactic scene toward the end – featured Ethan’s point of view. And Ethan passed out. So everything went dark. And then we got told what happened along with Ethan when he came around again. It was a very odd, rather anticlimactic method of storytelling.
It was repetitive. There were echoes of words throughout, the same phrasing used over and over (and clichés like “a long moment” were used over and over), people kept asking the same questions twice… and the same things happened over and over. People took lots of cleansing breaths (which seems out of place in 1944). Both boring and repetitive is to have people toss off a comment about something non-Earthly, to which Ethan responds “What is/are – – ?” And I became deathly tired of the “Boy Scout” tendencies of Ethan. I mean, they were laudable and all that, but it got old – someone is in trouble, they should leave it alone lest they get in more trouble too, they help someone with everyone but Ethan grumbling, and everything works out for the best as the new waif and/or stray becomes a valuable member of the questing company.
And it was predictable: I figured out where Ethan’s friend Marcus was pretty quickly. And the choice of the king of the dwarfs was telegraphed as clearly as anything Western Union ever sent. And as for that climax … *sigh* Yup. Saw it coming sixteen miles off.
I was not fond of Kat (Cat?), the thirteen-year-old girl who joined the quest; her personality was wildly inconsistent, going from coolly competent thief to petrified child to giggly teen to sultry seductress and cold-blooded killer to the one who saved the day to timid child to unrequited awkward and ineffectual flirt. There’s a Star Trek podcast (Mission Log) which talks about the Gumby-fication (Gumbification?) of certain characters to force them into whatever role was needed for a plot. The story needs someone who’s a smooth operator? Voila. Next episode needs someone who’s a total idiot about women? Voila – same character. And so on. Kat was like that – token female character who was whatever was needed in a given scene. This situation came to a head when she became viciously, stupidly, hatefully jealous to the point that I almost jettisoned the book less than an hour from the end. She needed a good kicking – physical violence seemed to be the only language she really understood, given the frequency with which she punched and slapped other people (especially Ethan).
Ethan, who was supposed to be the chosen one and the one all of this land has been waiting for and so on and so forth, just didn’t seem too bright. He was just a kid, of course – I couldn’t help thinking the book would have been much better if he’d been just a few years older – but he was kind of an idiot. As mentioned, he kept things quiet when he should have been telling someone; he told people things when he should have kept his mouth shut; he passed out about half a dozen times; finally, again in the last half hour of the book, he drank something a complete stranger hands to him. I didn’t care who this person turned out to be, Ethan had just said himself that almost everyone he ran into on this world tried to kill him, and the drink he tried here is a distillation of some kind of mushroom – he should have been twitching and frothing a minute later.
Two-thirds of the way through the book (and boy was I disappointed that it wasn’t closer to the end), Ethan was given a chance to give a rousing speech … I wished he hadn’t been. And not long after someone tells a long and heart-felt story, complete with sniffling, about how when she was young she fell in love with a grown man and he was too honorable to take advantage of her and so left her unrequited – which is very much to the point, until she adds that shortly after she married another man, who was horrible to her and “the day he died was the best moment of my life”, or words to that effect. Which kind of negates the lesson of the story, since if the first guy had “taken advantage” he would have been kind about it, and saved her the agony of the second guy.
One constant annoyance was either a quirk of the writer or of the narrator’s, not sure which: an insistence on possessives of names ending with “S” to be rendered as Marcus’ instead of Marcus’s. Example: “Marcus'” – which sounds like “His room was empty. So was Marcus”. Poor Marcus. It just bugged me throughout – and there were several names ending in “S”, two of them main characters. Oh, and constant use of “laying” instead of “lying” made me want to slap somebody too. (Maybe that’s why Kat was as violent as she was.)
I did like that the portal magic responsible for Ethan’s evacuation and return was not exactly favorably looked upon. I liked that the portal was completely unpredictable, that there was no way to know or find out what it did with Marcus – it was a great idea, with lots of possibilities. It was a bit unfortunate that what actually happened was predictable. I did not like the use the dwarfs were revealed to have made of portals long long ago: there was an elephantine infodump in the dreadful last half hour of the book which made a standard Tolkien rip-off into something sillier.
As happens so often, there were pieces of something good floating around in this stew, some good ideas and interesting sparks which, handled very, very differently, might have made a good book. Unfortunately, as it is, it’s not much better than annoying.
The narration by Derek Perkins is excellent, making as much of a silk purse as possible out of a sow’s ear. He reminds me strongly at times of Simon Vance, with much the same tone and facility for characterization, the same warmth. But the sow’s ear was still very much a porcine auditory organ, however well read.