Category Archives: Fantasy

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

There is a dark place in the world.

Essentially this place has been captured by Brian Catling in his novel The Vorrh, an alternative history of a soul sucking forest in the midst of Africa in the early 20th century. I finished this somewhat plotless book that reads more as a descent into madness than a traditional novel while questioning myself the whole time, “Why are you going on?” In the end, I probably shouldn’t have, and you probably shouldn’t either.

There seems to be a lot to explain as to why I would not recommend you reading a book that for most purposes was well written and, at least if you believe the reviews, well received. I’ll try my hand a some key points.

Have you ever had a friend that thinks that he is so clever when he turns a phrase? Maybe like a non-sequitur or a simple play on words that gives his sentence an unintended, but to him, serendipitous meaning. Now imagine having to read a book full of these crafted sentences. Sure maybe one in five come off with some power, but honestly, it becomes a slog rather than the occasional moments of delight like they can be. The author is trying too hard to get a little nod of the hat with each phrase. Some may see this as lyrical, but hundreds of pages worth makes you long for the spartan description of Hemingway.

Now let’s talk about description or world-building or character development or anything else besides, say, a plot. This is what Mr. Catling offers to you in this tome – which is supposedly the first of a trilogy. I couldn’t tell you what the next volume could be about because I’m not sure I could tell you what the story of this one is. There are a bunch of fleshed-out characters and the world of The Vorrh is elaborately assembled with such dark intention that makes the reader ready to escape. A story, such as it is, more or less develops just because the characters kind of bump into each other – not because there is any direction to the tale. Several long “side” stories have virtually no relation to the main characters or the Vorrh at all. It’s almost as if separate stories were just cobbled into this novel because they exhibited the same mood as the others and it would thicken the book. I love world-building and character development, but there seems to be a sad tendency – especially in the fantasy genre – to substitute worlds with stories. I’m sorry, but give me an O. Henry short story every day that has a plot than 500 pages of an immaculate world with no point. It is like many modern authors are trying to be Tolkein but missing the point.

Finally I need to mention the evil. The Vorrh is a dark place. It turns everyone that goes into it a hollow shell of a person. Make no mistake: this is the intention of this book to those who read it. Every single character is a dark, twisted caricature of a person. There are no heroes, no good guys, no noble purposes. The one character who should be a bright spot is a woman who receives back her sight after being born blind. In such a gloomy, oppressive world, surely this one would find joy in her sight. Almost purposefully as soon as the reader thinks this, the author spends the time to show the ugliness of the sight of flowers in this character’s mind. The gift of sight is actually a curse – for really to all the people that inhabit this world, life is a curse. I rarely psychoanalyze authors, but Mr. Catling has presented a worldview that sees corruption and evil in all things. I don’t know if I know anyone who I think would like this book, and if I did, I would be scared to give it to them because it might sink them beyond hope.

I usually don’t bring up the Bible in non-Christian works, but the author has taken perverse pleasure at bringing up many illustrations of it and making them horrible. In Phillipians, Paul says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” I cannot think of a better antithesis to that statement than this book. It is a mire of thought. Avoid it.

2 stars out of 10

Photo: Antoine Beauvillain

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The Mongoliad (The Foreworld Saga: Book1) by Neal Stephenson et al.

A while back I was listening to a podcast (I wish I could remember which one) where they were interviewing Neal Stephenson. Neal’s been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Crash almost twenty years ago. The main material in the podcast was over his then most recent work Anathem, but what stuck out to me at the time was his interest in ancient weapons and fighting techniques. He later got together with several (many, if truth be told) authors with a similar fascination. They decided to work on a collaborative effort which involved a realistic world where many of these forgotten martial arts could be put on display in word form. Thus was birthed the first book in the Foreworld Saga: The Mongoliad.

I’ll list all the authors since I’m sure they all want credit: Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, and Mark Teppo. They combine to tell the fairly straightforward tale in 13th century Europe and Asia. There are dual storylines in play – one in Asia where a young warrior is trying to save the Mongolian Empire from courtly corruption and one in Europe following a band of knights on their quest to kill the Khan of Khans. The tales thread back and forth throughout the book with zero overlap and without much thought to pacing. There is however quite a bit of – I’m sure fairly historical – fighting and war-making. Unfortunately all the martial prowess cannot make up for the lack of actual plot.

The book started off slow, but picked up with some early character development. This however played out into a story that went nowhere. Half of this book is supposed to be a knightly quest, yet the heroes never went anywhere significant. The other half is supposed to deal with courtly machinations and intrigue, but only got as far as some thin innuendo. This book did have some interesting characters and seemed to set up some clever plot ideas, but ultimately the story just stops without anything coming to fruition. I’m not sure if this had to do with the multiplicity of authors or the foreknowledge of sequels to come, but typically there is some payoff at the end of a volume that makes you want to follow up. This book provided none. I have some curiosity to see what becomes of some of the characters, but probably not enough to take the time to find out.

I have looked at the Foreworld website, and in the past couple of years, they have put out many sequels and “side-quest” stories. There must be some depth to the series, I just wish this talented group of authors could have done a better job of introducing the world to the reader. Read this only if you have time to spare.

3.5 stars out of 10

photo: Jeff Abt

Harpist in the Wind (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 3) by Patricia McKillip

The conclusion of the Riddle-Master series finds Morgon and Raederle struggling to find the mysterious High One and the reason for the war that has spread across the realm. The quest begins simply enough as they head for the ancient wizard’s city of Lungold. This book, like the other two, has almost all of its action take place on the way to destinations instead of at them. Morgon and his bride-to-be struggle on the journey and have their characters developed. They fall into traps, escape, get to Lungold, where they fall into a trap, escape, head to another destination, fall into a trap, escape…I think you get the idea. The main riddles of the book, if not the series, are who is the High One, who are the Earth Masters, and what does one have to do with the other? These questions have needed to be answered for a long time, and when they finally are, it almost really doesn’t matter.

Patricia McKillip’s writing is quite good. She describes details and emotions with a power to draw the reader into imagery. The effect is such that – like the illusion that the wizards of this book so often create – there is an illusion that this story has more of a plot than it actually does. Thankfully, in the final third of Harpist, the main plot is finally revealed, and yet when it is, there’s not really any more to it than what one kind of expects. The motivations behind the final reveal and what all the characters are fighting about are basically left to the idea that power corrupts. It’s vague, but at least the writing was nice.

There are moments of real emotion in the book. Raederle’s character is continually the touchstone for any strength this series has found. I have read many reviews that claim that this is that reader’s all time favorite series. My only conclusion is that they have connected with these characters in their brief moments of genuine insight. Each of them, especially Deth the harpist, have the potential to be major fantasy characters, but at the end of the day, plot helps flesh characters out, and these books were lacking in it. Florid prose does not a series make.

The Riddle-Master Trilogy had many good ideas and characters – even though their fullness didn’t quite pan out. There was enough here that I would be willing to try more from this author. If you read this series, you may not be disappointed, but there’s also plenty of other fantasy out there you should hit first.

5.5 out of 10 stars

The Riddle-Master Trilogy

4.5 out of 10 stars

Heir of Sea and Fire (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 2) by Patricia McKillip

The continuation of the Riddle-Master trilogy, Heir of Sea and Fire, gets going with a little more steam than the first book of the series did. That selection, The Riddle-Master of Hed, just seems to lag from the beginning and only developed a decent pace more than halfway through. This was not the case with this book. The pace starts steady and builds throughout to not a dramatic conclusion, but at least, a fitting one.

The heir mentioned in the title is Raederle, the promised bride of Morgon, the aforementioned Riddle-Master. The story follows her and an unlikely group of girls as they quest toward Erlenstar Mountain to find Morgon. Whether it’s because the protagonist of this tale is female or she has a better understanding of where she’s going with the story, the author seems to develop the characters in a more relatable way. Raederle becomes the first person that you care about. You understand what motivates her and how she’s torn between love of family and love of her promised Morgon. Her personal battles drive the story. Her inner world is more interesting than the world she’s moving through.

Unfortunately for the series, the unknowns about the motivations of the evil Ghistestlwchlohm (say that three times fast!) are hindering the real immediacy of the plot. Two books into a trilogy, the reader should have more of an idea about why the bad guy is bad. There is more innuendo about what is happening to the world than actual understanding. Yes, the characters have developed, the plot is still weak.

I’m far enough in that I will read the conclusion Harpist in the Wind, but the resolution to this series needs to reveal much more than it has until now.

5.5 stars out of 10

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 1) by Patricia McKillip

I was on the hunt for new books to read recently – as opposed to just reading more of some of my favorite authors works. Along the way, I came across the Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. This is one of those fantasy series that has been around for a while that I would see in the random library’s fantasy section. I have never taken the time to pick it up though. After reading several reviews announcing this as the best fantasy series that particular person had ever read, I thought it was time to give it a shot.

The story follows Morgon of Hed as he gets swept up into a quest to discover his destiny and save the world. Morgon, however, does not want the mantle of hero thrust upon him and continually tries to deny his fate. This is harder than it seems as he time and time again gets turned toward the mountain of the High One. He is faithfully accompanied by Deth, the High One’s harpist, who has a mysterious agenda of his own.

I have lived for over a thousand years and can recognize the smell of Doom.” –Deth

Initially, the quest has a natural draw to the reader as the intrigue of riddles make one long for answers. Unfortunately, right as the tale picks up steam, it gets sidetracked into some worldbuilding, that while important, becomes a little ponderous (like this sentence). Dreams are jumped in and out of several times throughout the book without warning. While this adds to the mystery and riddles, it can feel overplayed. However, once it breaks though this inertia, Morgon’s story moves with a rhythm that keeps the reader committed to the journey. Then the story ends. Done.

There is an ending to the book, and it has importance, but it feels like the author said, “OK, book two now.” I love book series of all lengths, yet I prefer it when the individual books have self-contained stories. I’ll have a better sense when I finish the whole trilogy (yes, I’ll finish it), but my impression is that the trilogy is really one story that got divided into three parts. I know that’s a minor point, but it’s good to know before you get into a series.

Riddles, shape changers, destiny and doom. This story checks many boxes in the fantasy want-list. A steady, if not always perfect, intro into what promises to be an intriguing tale. Stay tuned for the review of the continuation Heir of Sea and Fire.

4.5 stars out of 10