This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
OK, so I was OK with The Iron Tree – volume one of The Crowthistle Chronicles – to be somewhat unoriginal. It’s a fantasy novel, in the epic mould, with a swordsman riding a horse on the cover, and a map at the front, and a glossary of synonyms for “magic” and “grandmother” to boot. I think I knew what I was getting into here.
I was even OK with the plot being about a young man with a mysterious past and a magical talisman setting out for adventure with a bunch of his friends. So what if every hack author and Final Fantasy imitator does the same? At least I knew what I was getting into.
I didn’t mind that the novel is supposed to be a chronicle written by the amazingly named Adiuvo Constanto Clementer, because as far as I can tell he only addresses the reader directly in the prologue and the epilogue and remains firmly off-stage since. I won’t even snarkily ask how he was supposed to know the precise words which passed between the protagonist and his family in one particular instance, because for all I know she justifies that at some point and I am sure as hell not going to read the entire novel to find out where.
I was, I admit, somewhat unnerved when, flicking ahead in the book, I notice a large amount of bad poetry. And I admit a certain annoyance that Adiuvo essentially lays out the plot in the prologue. (Dan pointed out to me that Shakespeare does the same in Romeo and Juliet, but Shakespeare makes me want to see what happens next. Dart-Thornton does not.) But that is not the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I did raise an eyebrow when the publishers, on the book’s back cover, compared Dart-Thornton to Mary Gentle and Jack Vance. Now, I don’t know any of Mary Gentle’s stuff, beyond that Ash: A Secret History is very very long. But Vance? I know Vance. He sits at the right hand of Gene Wolfe in my personal pantheon of fantasy authors. You compare yourself to Vance (or allow other people to compare you to him) and you had better be pretty fucking special, little lady, because Uncle Jack was writing original, never-matched-since fantasy when Lord of the Rings was just a heap of notes scattered about Tolkein’s desk at Merton College.
Dart-Thornton is no Jack Vance. I suspect the authors raised his name because Dart-Thornton’s dialogue is unusual, and Vance’s dialogue is unusual, but the comparison does not work. A wise man once said that Vance’s dialogue looks wooden at first glance, but when you look closely you find that it’s actually carved. The characters in Vance’s stories speak with a debonair elegance that we can only aspire to; Dart-Thornton’s characters spout wooden dialogue, which shows none of the canny wit and easy grace of, say, Cugel the Clever or Rhialto the Marvellous.
I will show you the paragraph where I gave up on this book. Perhaps you will understand. The context is this: our protagonist, who is here speaking, was playing football with other youths in his village when a supernatural earthquake occurred. His mother and aunt are expressing their relief that he was carrying the mysterious amulet that protects him from all harm. Bear in mind that this is a young man, at most in his late teens.
He smiled at her. “Gramercie. I am glad of the talisman, Aunt Shahla, but somehow its existence seems like a barrier between myself and my comrades.”
Incidentally, Vance would have stopped around about here, the point having been made.
“Ever since I was old enough to understand its properties, both of you have impressed upon me the need for keeping them secret. I have obeyed you. Your advice is wise, for if the true potency of this rare object were to be revealed, trouble would surely descend upon us.”
Note how Dart-Thornton writes as if she is in an English class and the teacher just scolded her for not using the thesaurus enough.
“Every mortal being wishes to be safe from harm. Everyone wants to protect their loved ones. The talisman would inevitably arouse jealousy, resentment, and envy.”
Not to mention use of the thesaurus.
“Throughout history, people have committed terrible crimes for the sake of lesser treasures than this. I have no desire to bring about strife and suffering; therefore, I am happy to keep the amulet’s qualities hidden. But while hiding it, I am inclined to consider myself a fraud, for dishonesty does not come naturally to me. And sometimes I see myself as a coward, crouching behind gramarye’s shield.”
Now, imagine the above as a single horrible paragraph, devoid of my commentary, sitting in the middle of a page like a turd in the middle of entirely dry and boring prose which managed to make an earthquake seem dull. I don’t doubt that much of the information in this speech needed to be conveyed to the reader, but did it have to be conveyed like that? No.
That’s why I stopped reading The Iron Tree on page 10.
Look, kids, simple unpretentious fantasy novels are fun, but that doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to the horrors of Dart-Thornton. Go read Swarmthief’s Dance by Deborah J. Miller instead. It’s the beginning of a mildly unoriginal fantasy series, but it actually shows the odd flash of not being utterly unoriginal on occasion, and the prose is pretty fine. There’s a war in heaven, muses whose souls are shattered to become swarms of insects, a manipulative god of the Underworld puppeteering events, a convincing descent of one character from “Machiavellian pragmatist” to “full-blown Dark Lord”, a romance subplot involving a woman marrying a bisexual man, falling in love with him, discovering his secret, trying to get between him and the gay lover who he is actually in love with, and almost succeeding only for the love triangle to be horribly, nastily shattered. And the pacing is wonderful, slowly drawing you in and then bit by bit ramping up the tension as events move ever-faster to an apocalyptic ending which left me gasping for the next book in the series. It’s much better.