Welcome to our next Let’s Read!
After a brief foray into American spies and sophisticated Europeans we’re back to our old stomping ground of brick-size fantasy novels. In the comments at the end of the Hostile Intent series several people mentioned Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress as a good candidate, so I took a peek at the Amazon preview and saw that it begins with a prologue set 327 years before the main story and prefaced with the following quote:
…and a great war shall come to pass, in which many shall die before the easing of its flames. The dark side of the conflict, those of the Pentangle, shall come to defeat before finding their Fifth, and only after the discovery of the Stone and the Tome by their enemies. The banishment of those of the Pentangle shall occur upon the sea from which few have returned….
Page 2,037, Chapter One of The Prophecies of The Tome
THE PROPHECIES OF THE TOME
How can you not love that?
The plot synopsis makes this sound like a combination between The Wheel of Time and the novels of our very own Terry Goodkind, positing as it does a war between male wizards and female sorceresses. Guess which side is evil?
We will delve into the mysteries of the book together, but first, let’s look at the cover:
Dudes on horses looking at a big medieval city, the author’s name has a larger font than the title, hyperbolic praise. Yep, this is a fantasy novel alright.
Before we begin I should mention that I’m going into this blind and therefore reserve the right to cancel the series and move onto something else if the book turns out to be boring. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Prologue: The Sea of Whispers
I always wonder how these fantasy locations get named. Most actual seas and oceans are named after either the people who discovered them (or “discovered” them) or the countries or continents they border. Who looked at a stretch of water and decided “I’m going to call this the SEA OF SPARKLES. I don’t know why, I just felt like it.”
(If you feel like I’m being a pedantic asshole than you are correct, and also welcome to the blog)
Anyway the prologue opens with a wizard named Wigg standing on the deck of a ship named the Resolve, which has run into a spot of bother. For some reason even though we learn his name in the opening paragraphs the following narration goes out of its way to frequently avoid using it, referring to him as “the wizard” or “the old one” or “the old wizard”.
The old wizard in the rain-soaked grey robe was named Wigg.
It’s time to talk about cliches!
This sentence operates on the assumption that a) male magic users are named wizards b) wizards wear robes c) the reader will obviously know what a wizard robe looks like. Isn’t that kind of telling? Why, in a genre where you can create your own world from scratch, would you use pre-existing elements so ubiquitous that you can just stick them in the story without even describing them? Why do wizards wear robes? If this guy is involved in a war (as he seems to be) then why not wear armor?
I mean, the actual answer to that question is that the robe-wearing wizard thing probably became codified in tabletop games as a way of limiting magic-users for balance purposes, and then fantasy authors played those games and incorporated it into their books. It still doesn’t make a lot of sense
This section also gives us an introduction to the quality of the prose. It’s…. okay, I guess. It’s that sort of adjective-heavy writing that gets the job done and not a whole lot else. Not terrible, but not really good either.
The dialogue, on the other hand….
“Wizard bastard,” she hissed. “I shall live to see you dead.”
So what’s going on here? Well, there’s a war between wizards (who are good) and sorceresses (who are bad). Given the title of this blog and my well known pro-witch sympathies, and considering that Sorceresses are kind of like witches (they even have a coven!), I am going to insist on siding with the sorceresses even if I have to twist the story into knots to do it.
Anyway the somewhat disarmingly named “Directorate of Wizards” sent Wigg on a special mission to end the war. He’s got the four leading sorceresses belowdecks, and he and his crewmates have sailed out into the middle of the Sea of Whispers to get rid of them. Good thing there aren’t any more sorceresses out there- a fifth sorceress, if you will.
After the sorceresses come up on deck Wigg makes sure none of his men get boners over them.
He chose then to glance at the thirty men lined up behind the women, wondering if he would see lust in their eyes, hoping he would not have to control them.
Dude, they’re on an almost-destroyed ship far out at sea trying to keep control of four of the most powerful magic users in the world, and half of them seem to be missing limbs. I don’t think that’s going to put them in a sexy mood.
Then again the book makes sure to tell us how totally way hot all the sorceresses are despite enduring fifteen days of captivity and near-starvation and how they sashay and show off their boobs and shit to be all enticing. Male fantasy authors must be the randiest people in the world, because they can’t seem to conceive of the idea that there is any scenario in which a man can lay eyes on an attractive fully-clothed woman and not get turned on, including imminent mortal peril.
The almond-shaped eyes dominated the exotic face
And then she’s referred to as “the exotic one” from here on out. Jesus, this book isn’t wasting any time being awful, is it?
But the Leader roughly pushed her Sister’s help away
Wait the book I was writing had witches in it and one of them kind of talks like this. LET THE RECORD SHOW I WROTE IT A YEAR AGO I DIDN’T COPY ROBERT NEWCOMB
SOME OF YOU HAVE READ IT YOU CAN BACK ME UP
Wigg reads out the charges against the Sorceresses in jarringly modern language (“crimes against humanity”) and declares that the Directorate have decided to be compassionate and exile them instead of executing them.
Dude. They’re apparently like triple super-Nazis and you said you slaughtered all of their soldiers during the war, just fucking kill them. There is literally no reason to keep them alive.
Your oath. We’re weakened. You must obey your ridiculous laws.
The wizard’s plan is absurdly convoluted, but basically: they had to weaken the sorceresses to have them stand trial safely, but that also meant they couldn’t execute them because of wizard oaths. Instead of saying “hey we’re just kidding you’re all free to leave right now, incidentally there’s a crowd of angry people outside who want to talk to you” they decide to sail out fifteen days into the Sea of Fantasy Names (the furthest anyone’s ever gone), pretend to give them a life raft loaded with enough provisions to reach shore again so they’ll get in willingly, but actually only give them enough for five days so they’ll have to sail east instead and hope they reach landfall.
The idea is that they’ll either die at sea, which I guess doesn’t count as murder somehow, or they’ll actually reach land and won’t be able to come back. For some reason they don’t consider the obvious third possibility: that they’ll reach land, find enough sustenance to restore their powers, load up on supplies and then sail back. Twenty days of sailing is not at all un-achievable in a small boat, especially when they’ve got (apparently very strong) magic aiding them.
I can’t help but notice that all of this needless complexity could have been avoided by just having the sorceresses escape at the end of the war and hide somewhere.
In the rose-colored light from the trio of moons, the small skiff, with its faint yellow light, was now visible.
Hey, look at that! One of my common fantasy complaints has been addressed.
I will live to see you dead. Someday you will pay. You all will pay, including any of the inferior male offspring you may spawn.
So far the sorceresses seem like straw-feminists. I hope this trend doesn’t continue.
The exotic one with the long black hair raised her dark, almond eyes to her mistress, silent questions implicit on her sensual face.
Are you fucking serious
Anyway there’s a clunky exposition conversation between “the leader” and “the exotic one” (none of them are named, and the other two aren’t described) revealing that there’s a secret fifth sorceress back where they came from, waiting in some kind of seclusion to fuck shit up.
Hold onto your butts people, because before the first chapter starts we get not one but three different quotes:
True peace of mind comes only when my heart and actions are aligned with true principles and values. I shall forsake not, to the loss of all material things, my honor and integrity. I shall protect the Paragon above all else, but take no life except in urgent defense of self and others, or without fair warning. I swear to rule always with wisdom and compassion.
—THE SUCCESSION OATH OF THE FIRST REIGNING MONARCH OF THE KINGDOM OF EUTRACIA, MADE TO THE DIRECTORATE OF WIZARDS UPON THE PEACE FOLLOWING THE SORCERESSES ’ WAR
THE BULLSHIT OF THE WHATEVER MADE TO THE I DON’T CARE
To ignore the past is to solicit disrespect. To ignore the present is to invite laziness. To ignore the future is to beg disaster.
The Kingdom of Eutracia, 327 Years Later
I guess the fifth sorceress must have been in some sort of suspended animation.
The Tome shall be read first by a seed of the victors who, years later, shall become the sworn enemy of those same victorious ones. The sire of this seed shall, having abandoned the victor’s cause, live as an outcast. The six of the craft who remain shall select one from their midst to lead them in peace for sixteen score and seven years, choosing, in turn, many who shall wear the stone. From the seed of one of those who wear the stone shall come the Chosen One, first preceded by another. The azure light that accompanies the births of the Chosen Ones shall be the proof of the quality of their blood . . .
– PAGE 478, CHAPTER ONE OF THE VIGORS OF THE TOME
Our Chosen One for the day is Prince Tristan, who is throwing knives at a tree and being sad and mopey because his thirtieth birthday is a month away and that means he has to succeed his father on the throne, and he doesn’t want to be king, and also he doesn’t like the wizards who counsel the king, and also he doesn’t have a wife yet and also these really seem like the thought processes of someone a decade younger. I guess I’ll take adolescent whining over Tristan staring moodily at the throne and having Deep Thoughts about the nature of Kingship and Duty and shit.
He was wearing what he always wore when he came up here: the black leather knee boots and trousers, with the simple black vest that laced in the front across his bare chest.
I’m not sure if this is just badly worded or if Tristan is seriously wearing black leather pants.
Prince Tristan the First of the House of Galland, heir apparent to his father, King Nicholas the First of the kingdom of Eutracia, stood alone in the woods,
Shouldn’t the crown prince have, like, bodyguards and stuff?
His evening meal would be taken as usual with his parents, twin sister, and brother-in-law in the great dining hall of the palace. He loved them all very much, but they would be angry with him tonight – and their criticisms were something he would rather avoid. Perhaps he would take a simple evening’s meal tonight in the kitchen with the staff, as he was so fond of doing these days. Somehow those people always seemed so much more real to him.
And this is the point where, if I was reading for fun, I would have put the book down and walked away. All we’ve been presented with so far are non-stop cliches and material that was tired a full thirty years or more before this book came out. The world the story takes place in could not be any less interesting and Tristan might as well be a paper cutout with “protagonist” written on it.
Now, I fully admit that all of this could change going forward, but when I’m deciding whether or not to devote my time to reading a giant 800+ page doorstopper first impressions count for a lot.
But hey we do find out that Tristan invented knife-throwing and is a super duper good knife-thrower! That’s an interesting character trait, right?
….okay, yeah. Going by this first chapter Tristan is about as dull as Richard was at the beginning of Wizard’s First Rule. Hopefully he won’t turn into a bloodthirsty murderer as well.
There’s a brief and not very exciting action scene where it looks like someone just tried to shove Tristan off a cliff, but it turns out it was just his horse.
The horse pawed the ground twice with his left front hoof and snorted softly at him, as if he had already put up with quite enough of Tristan’s foolishness and was more than ready to go back to the stables.
Wacky horse shenanigans put me in an epic high fantasy mood, let me tell you.
He groaned inwardly when he saw the dry crack, and there was no way to tell if it was strong enough for what he had planned. He couldn’t simply stretch his legs to the cliff. It was too far away. He would have to swing his body back and forth to gain the momentum to reach the ledge.
The protagonist hanging from a tree branch over a one-thousand foot drop should be way more exciting than this.
The prince hobbled stiffly across the clearing, removing the saddle and saddlebag from the tree, placing them on the soft grass in the shade.
Just like with Wigg, there seems to be an odd reluctance to use Tristan’s name.
There’s some more horse shenanigans with Tristan and his trusty steed Pilgrim sharing carrots and Tristan making hi-larious quips. I’ve increasingly noticed during these Let’s Reads that a lot of fantasy authors only have three settings: self-important melodramatic guff, edgy grimdark bullshit or twee nonsense. We started off firmly in the first category combined with a bit of the second during the prologue, and now we’ve pelted full-speed for the third.
What’s even the point of all of this? To show that Tristan is best buds with his horse? Is his horse going to be an important character in the story? I’m guessing probably not.
I find myself contrasting this with the opening of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, which also starts with the main character and an animal getting up to shenanigans. The difference is that a) the animal can speak and is going to be an integral part of the story, b) their dialogue is way more interesting than this and c) they’re on their way to what will turn out to be the catalyst for the main action of the plot. It’s not just pointless filler thrown in because the author thinks he needs to tick off a check-box marked “character building” during the opening chapter.
Also Northern Lights has interesting characters and a unique setting and a gripping plot and is actually, you know, well written, but never mind all that.
Sometimes the horse seemed to be the best friend he’d ever had. Next, of course, to his twin sister Shailiha, and Wigg, Lead Wizard of the Directorate.
I guess wizards are immortal in this world.
(Odds of Shailiha dying by the end of the trilogy: 80+%)
King Tristan the First, Lord of the Swinging Tree Branches, he thought to himself.
WHY ISN’T ANYTHING HAPPENING
Okay time for some more background (delivered via Tristan sitting back against a tree and thinking about stuff, of course): the wizards are indeed immortal due to time magic, and on Tristan’s thirtieth birthday his dad will join the Directorate and become immortal as well.
Then Nicholas’ life, also, would be protected by the time enchantments, as well as by the powerful jewel called the Paragon that so augmented the exceptional power of the wizards of the Directorate.
Tristan’s mother Morganna would therefore sadly but gracefully die before her husband, leaving him to a life of perpetuity with the Directorate.
Jesus that’s a real harsh deal. Assuming Tristan gets the same immortality and is doomed to watch his sister and future wife die before him, I’m amazed he wouldn’t want to refuse the enchantment.
(Also Morganna is a fucking awesome name, just putting that out there)
He sighed. He had to admit that he loved them all, despite how much fun he made of it. But it did little to increase his desire to be king.
Why exactly doesn’t Tristan want to be king? The story is portraying him like a commoner who suddenly got scooped up and sat on the throne, but he’s not. He’s the prince. He grew up in the most privileged position in his entire society, possibly in his entire world, told from birth that he’s destined to rule. His kingdom has enjoyed three centuries of peace and seems to be entirely idyllic in every regard. This is just a bland repetition of the hoary old “person has to be the thing but they don’t want to be the thing” trope.
God if this is the sort of stuff people were reading before the whole grimdark thing swung into high gear, I’m starting to see the appeal.
In addition to this precedent-setting decision, Nicholas had been the first and only king to pre-announce the fact that his son would also join the Directorate when his time came.
Sure that makes sense.
He had heard a rumor once that the decision had been made at the exact moment of his birth, but anytime he had asked his parents or the wizards about it, they had given him no reply. Finally, he had stopped arguing and glumly accepted his fate.
Yes, that is totally what a person would do. If there was this giant mystery surrounding your existence that your parents refused to ever speak to you about which also dooms you to a life you don’t want to live, you would totally just stop asking about it.
As Tristan continued to watch the sky, his mind turned from affairs of state to affairs of the heart.
Just to be clear, we’re 25 pages into the book and Tristan is still leaning against a tree and wistfully thinking about his life. I’m going to bring this up next time I see a genre fan complain that lit-fic is boring.
What are Tristan’s love problems? Are women repulsed by his bland personality and terrible fashion sense? Is he being inundated with proposals from suitors who only want him for the power a marriage to him would bring? Are his parents trying to pair him up with an eligible princess against his wishes for political reasons? Might he be (gasp) into men and unwilling to lock himself into a loveless marriage because it’s what society and his royal position expect of him?
HA HA NOPE actually it’s that he’s totally way hot and has tons and tons of sex with women who throw themselves on his royal boner, but hE’s NeVeR fAlLeN iN lOvE.
No, I am not joking.
Sadly, it was just that no woman had ever really made him ache in her absence to the point of distraction, or hunger in her presence to the point of pain.
I DON’T CAAAAAAAAARE
Then, sadly, there was also the matter of his studies and royal duties as prince.
Tristan stop whining and do something
Once he was king, the wizards would probably make him cut his hair in a more appropriate style.
NO I SAID DO SOMETHING JESUS CHRIST
(I feel compelled to point out once again that these quotes are buried in pages and pages of waffle)
Depressed, he realized that all he had ever wanted was to have a normal life, but it had never been allowed him.
You poor baby I feel your pain at being forced to become ruler of the largest and most peaceful kingdom in the world, after which you’ll learn awesome wizard powers and live forever. What hardship.
And I mean, you could just abdicate the throne, right? We’re already told that there’s a protocol in place for what happens when a king doesn’t have any male heirs.
But his smile returned when he thought about the other side of his training – the physical side. His education with the Royal Guard had been his one true love,
So wait until your coronation, say “I’m out of here assholes” and join the army. Who’s going to stop you?
That was the day he had learned that his mother, Queen Morganna, had almost died while giving life first to his twin sister, and then to him. As a result, she could bear no more children. Therefore, because of Nicholas’ unprecedented desire to join the Directorate and to be followed by his only son Tristan, the young man’s fate was sealed first as prince, then king, and finally as a wizard of the Directorate itself.
You already told us that the wizards have repeatedly chosen new kings when there was no suitable heir. Maybe there’s some plot relevant Chosen One reason why Tristan has to be king, but if there is than Tristan doesn’t know that.
Anyway Tristan has, like, special blood or something and it’s all magical and shit and he probably has super duper powers that are going to come out before the first third of the book, woo hoo.
The Season of New Life was in full bloom,
No it is not the fucking Season of New Life, it’s spring. If your book takes place in a temperate setting with four seasons that correspond to the four real-world seasons, just call them by their real names.
(In case you’re wondering the other three are the Season of The Sun, the Season of Harvest and the Season of Crystal. Try to guess which is which. Go on, I dare you)
After more waffling a bunch of giant butterflies appear (really) and Tristan is all awe-struck and shit because of how rare they are. After some more wacky horse antics the butterflies tear off into the woods and Pilgrim chases them. Tristan follows but finds himself in a strange, unfamiliar part of the forest, possibly due to nefarious happenings. He eventually finds some sort of ancient stone wall buried in the ground and it collapses under his weight, sending him falling into a dark pit.
So that’s nearly 4000 words on the first two chapters of The Fifth Sorceress. How can we sum it up? Well at first I was like
But then our boy Tristan came on the scene and all of a sudden everything got a whole lot more entertaining.
Seriously though, these are probably the worst opening chapters I’ve ever read. Can’t wait to check out the rest.