Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Answering Review Request: Keepers of the Dawn

Herb Smith asked me to read his novel, "Keepers of the Dawn". It is a medieval fantasy that genre shifts into something else. It is also the first book in his Dawn Cycle. I will examine plot, character and polish, and then assign a grade.


The plot is not as neat as the amazon blurb would have you believe. While the safe keeping of a MacGuffin is indeed vital to the plot, there is a lot built around this. Bartu and his "book" do not become central to the narrative for many, many chapters. This is a "stout" narrative; a lot of meat on its bones, maybe more than it needs, but it is strong for this reason.

The first part of the book reads like an anthology. It shifts location, perspective and time period from one character to another: a seer, a prince, a royal healer, a high priestess, a blacksmith, a mountain man, etc. Each one adds to a central narrative, but it is a broad one. The Vile/Penitent conflict, such as the last war, has many dimensions and each character adds one to it. This is interesting character development and world building; it does all these things fantastically but it is also plodding and low energy. It is like the reader is watching side events and can only infer the main events from what characters talk about them.

After a while, the plot narrows its focus and picks up pace. By now the reader has a solid understanding of the world that Bartu moves through and the characters he meets. In fact, the reader knows significantly more than Bartu does, which leads to some delightful dramatic irony.

The book's great twist is not original. I have reviewed another book that used a similar device and also played a video game that used a third version of this twist. It is well constructed, well foreshadowed, and makes sense, but it is not original. Much more impressive than any claim of originality, is how committed the story is to this given genre and setting while simultaneously laying the groundwork to overturn everything.

The book's ending is exemplary for how the endings of books in a series should end. There is no cliffhanger; the book's conflict is all resolved and wrapped up. However the conflict of the series is just beginning. The epilogue is used both to address any remaining plot threads from this book and also to point out what the reader can expect from the rest of the series. Thus, the reader is made to be excited about the next book for the next book itself instead of seeking answers for the previous  one.


Bartu is the protagonist. This eventually becomes clear. He's immature and doesn't know what to do on this journey of his other than "Keep the Keeper's promise" which basically means two things:  "protect the Book of Ancient Power" and "tell no one about the Keeper's Promise". He knows little else. I don't fault him or the author for this because his father laments that he is not ready for this adventure or for the full Keeper's duty, and that he has a lot of additional baggage due to being a mental deaf-mute whose mother died in child birth.
He's also hotheaded and given to purple prose which, combined with the immaturity, make him difficult for me to take seriously. Third, he's a pinball protagonist. Shadow gives him grief for this by replying to his question of "with whom should we stand" with another question, "why stand with anyone?" and saying that he is quick to give up his independence.
I gotta talk about Bartu's relationship with his love interest. It is horrendous. Within minutes of finding out that she's a girl, they're having sex. Afterwards, they use pet names like "my shadow" and "keeper-of-my-heart". On Tvtropes, we call this "Strangled By the Red String" because the author tries too hard to force the couple. With the way they speak, it's like they're in Romeo and Juliet.

Braxon by contrast, is more mature, more independent and yet still capable of working with and relying on others. He is also older and he was mentored by a wise and noble healer. Thus, it stands to reason that he is better off developmentally than Bartu.

Rue-A-Kai is the Big Bad and yet not. He's a classic "Evil demon overlord" kind of villain that leads a horde of Vile/Kalifai against the Penitent world. He is monstrous, cunning, powerful, and charismatic. Yet although he moves the plot with his active villainy, he does not have much screentime. Indeed, his army is always the greater threat.

 Rue-A-Kai's army is a Villain Sue. In the main narrative, after the anthology style narrative at the start, every battle they engage in is a curb stomp. The words used are "routed and crushed". The Holy Alliance has five armies to his one, outnumbers him 2-1 using only a tenth of the Penitent world's population, is staffed by soldiers who are not misshapen, and possesses a greater infrastructure for both defending and supply. Yet the Viles win every time. They are not hindered by things like time, distance, logistics, a missing commander-in-chief, or heavy casualties. What makes this particularly galling are two things.
The first of which is that the Holy Alliance is indeed hampered by things like logistics and distance. Several battles involve something along the lines of "if we can just hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive" or "army x is too far away to help". There are also a number of scenes that talk about its difficulty finding new recruits, paying for the army's upkeep, and civilians grumbling about the war's ripple effect on their daily life. The second thing is that, even with these problems and Rue-A-Kai's advantages like superior magical might and uniting charisma, they kept the Viles in check twice already. Yes, both times were close calls but the third time they put up as much resistance as a wet tissue. It creates Darkness Induced Apathy to hear characters say, in essence, "all we can do is wait for a savior".

Pen-Um-Brah is a fascinating character. His loyalties and backstory and identity; how fluid and confusing it is makes him compelling. He is also the narrative face of how the Vile and the Penitent are Not So Different, which in turns makes the narrative itself more compelling.

Shadow is a meaningful name because she exists as a satellite character. First she is Zandow's adoptive daughter and then Bartu's love interest. There's little to her character beyond that because she pretends to be an auditory deaf-mute for much of the story. There's this one scene where she talks about self-reliance, how much she hates The People, and why she wears an eyepatch but even this is brought up only in contrast to Bartu. I'm not going to bother hiding her gender, because when an author deliberately avoids using gendered pronouns for a character who is constantly cloaked then it is clear that Samus Is A Girl.

I didn't see any typos or some such.
The shift from anthology to protagonist is seamless. The chapters just start following Bartu more often.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Keepers of the Dawn" a B

This has been a free review request. I received nothing in exchange for it except a free copy of the book.

Click here for the next review request: Strange Magic

Click here for the previous book review (which was not as request): Identity Wars

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