Thursday, 2 October 2003

The Gates of Dawn

Robert Newcomb
ISBN: 0-553-81454-0

Fresh from his battle with the evil Coven at the end of 'The Fifth Sorceress', Prince Tristan of Eutracia returns to his kingdom to find the land in chaos, the people lawless.

Worse, he finds himself a wanted man, for someone has put a reward on his head. Hated and reviled for his slaying of the King, Tristan is forced into hiding, his plans to rebuild the nation delayed. Forced to skulk in the tunnels beneath the capital, the prince, together with his sister and the surviving wizards of Eutracia, is reassured by one thought: things can only get better, right...?

Wrong. The lesser wizards released into the population to seek out and destroy the last remaining creatures of the Coven are themselves being hunted down, disappearing without trace and the Paragon - the gem from which all magic stems - is beginning to fail.

Without it the land will be left barren and powerless and the same fate will befall Tristan's wizard mentors. In an effort to deduce what is happening, the prince attempts to retrieve the Tome of the Paragon from the caves that house it and discovers the new threat he faces - and the terrible powers behind it. Yes, evil is once again abroad and it's up to our hero to save the day.

Having been less than impressed by the preceding book in this series, I nonetheless hoped 'The Gates Of Dawn' would be different, avoiding the faults of its predecessor. Sadly, this is not the case. Many of the complaints listed below are the same as I raised with 'The Fifth Sorceress', but never fear - there are enough new problems to justify this review.

Just as with his first novel, Robert Newcomb seems to delight in releasing upon us a veritable horde of fantasy clichés. The plot is practically the same as before, with evil seeking out Tristan and his sister before threatening the end of the human race, forcing the prince and his merry band to face it and save the world. Again, the villain of the piece remains distant, hiding behind his minions and an army of magically created soldiers.

Again, our hero is forced into an 'against the odds' confrontation with vastly superior foes yet somehow comes out on top. It would be nice to see something new, something different, but 'The Gates Of Dawn' remains formulaic throughout.

It becomes clear early on in the book that the villain suffers from 'James Bond Syndrome', ignoring or underestimating the threat the heroes present and allowing them to live when he could easily crush them, even allowing them to escape with items that could be used against him! We have come to expect this from 007's foes but in a novel trying to pass itself off as serious, gritty fantasy it is an unforgivable sin. His rather sketchily explained motives for leaving the heroes alive and intact just don't make sense.

If he needs Tristan alive, why not just keep him imprisoned and powerless? On top of that the villain's diabolical plan is - besides being effectively the same plan as the Coven from the first book employed - ridiculously intricate and unnecessarily dosed with twists and turns, an effect obviously intended by Newcomb to impress the reader with how clever his character is supposed to be, when in fact it has the opposite effect.
Which brings us nicely to another major fault. The intelligence of the characters seems to fluctuate wildly as the novel progresses. When required they develop sudden, terrible idiocy but the rest of the time the characters all seem to be incredibly, impossibly clever. The ability of both heroes and villains to leap to a correct conclusion from no information at all is something that detracts heavily from the plausibility of the characters.

This, together with the fact that characters make mention of events and creatures that they couldn't have possibly known about, sometimes seems to give the impression that spontaneous telepathy is a serious disease running rife in Newcomb's world.

The wizards Wigg and Faegan seem particularly susceptible to this terrible plague, making assumptions about their enemies and mysterious events that are uncannily accurate then explaining them away with logic so fragile it shatters under the most casual glance. Tristan, on the other hand, sometimes seems the most moronic, blindly accepting man to ever walk the earth when the wizards explain things to him.

Indeed, for huge long sections of the book he is reduced to little more than a spectator as the wizards launch into tedious and technical explanations of what's going on - incidentally enlightening the reader at the same time. In fact, it seems as if Newcomb found these soliloquies an easier way of informing his readers than actually showing them.

The generally appalling quality of the dialogue certainly doesn't help to maintain interest during these tiresome passages. Throughout 'The Gates Of Dawn', the characters' conversation is stilted and formal, employing the most unusual and inappropriate phrases in such a way that it left me shaking my head in disbelief. On top of that, each character sounds exactly alike, using the same phrases and idiosyncrasies, distinguishable only by what they say, not how they say it. Take away 'Tristan said...' and you would be hard pressed to tell the prince apart from any other character.

Yet despite all of these faults, Newcomb somehow manages to maintain interest through the first two thirds of the story. The occasional evocative scene and well-written paragraph sneak in from time to time and the potential quality is sufficient, over-riding the many flaws. Enough is kept from the reader that curiosity keeps the pages turning, the promise that something interesting may just be around the corner. Only when all is revealed does the utter failure to live up to the potential of the story itself become apparent and it's all downhill from there, a long, slippery slope to the anti-climax of the truly dire finale and the predictable closing chapter.
If I take anything away from this novel, it is a sense of terrible disappointment, betrayal of my hopes and expectations, for early on it seemed a distinct improvement on the distinctly patchy 'The Fifth Sorceress', only to be brought crashing down by the last third of the book.

The fact that it could have been so much better only makes it worse, bringing nothing but bitter regret. As such, it is with sadness that I dispatch 'The Gates Of Dawn' to my 'Squandered Promise' shelf.

This review was originally written for

The Fifth Sorceress

Robert Newcomb
ISBN: 0-553-81453-2

It is time for the old king to step down. The crown prince of Eutracia has reached the age of thirty and, as is traditional, he is to take the throne.

Unfortunately, Prince Tristan doesn't want to be king, preferring his rather relaxed, carefree life just the way it is. Since the banishment of the evil Coven of Sorceresses and the end of the war three hundred years ago, Eutracia has been peaceful and serene, so with the Directorate of Wizards to aid him the King has little to do but supervise the day-to-day running of the kingdom. Tristan would rather practice swordplay with the Royal Guard. If only something would happen so he didn't have to be King...

Lucky Tristan. The Coven returns at the head of an army of bat-winged soldiers, interrupting the coronation and butchering the royal family and their wizardly advisors. Kidnapping Tristan's sister and stealing the jewel from which all magic originates, the Sorceresses leave Eutracia in chaos and return to the land of their exile, intent on brainwashing Princess Shailiha and taking control of her as-yet unborn child. For Tristan and his sister are the Chosen Ones, their coming prophesied long ago by a vanished race.

So, aided by the lone surviving wizard of the Directorate, Tristan begins a race against time to rescue his sister and regain the jewel before Shailiha becomes the Fifth Sorceress and the Coven enslaves the world. On the way, he learns a lot of harsh lessons, forcing him to grow up and deal with his responsibilities.

As volume one of 'The Chronicles Of Blood And Stone' and Robert Newcomb's début novel, 'The Fifth Sorceress' can be taken as an indication of what to expect from the new author and the rest of the series. Without an established fan-base, Newcomb has to convince through the quality of his writing and the story he tells, unlike an established author resting on his laurels.

Unfortunately this does not bode well for the rest of Newcomb's work, because 'The Fifth Sorceress' is not very good, pure and simple. The plot is nothing new - ancient evil once defeated in titanic battle returns to wreak death and destruction while lone hero confronts his destiny. It has been done many times before, and done much better. On top of that, the story is filled with unlikely plot devices and convenient coincidences, not to mention logical inconsistencies that don't, despite Robert Newcomb's apparent beliefs, disappear when a character explains them away in sophistry-ridden speeches.

Therein lies another problem: Far too much background information is relayed to the reader via long, windy explanations by knowledgeable characters to ignorant ones, Newcomb not seeming to have heard of the rule 'show, don't tell'.

Now we come to the characters. Tristan himself is fairly well realised, his playboy personality and relaxed attitude to life effectively conveyed, and during the course of the book his metamorphosis to responsible maturity is slow and convincing, even if the events which cause it are not.

Sadly, the Prince is - with one exception - the only character to receive such in-depth treatment, the sorceresses that make up the main villains of the piece seeming particularly two-dimensional, while little or no motivations or explanations of their actions are made. Even the soldiers under their command, the appallingly named 'Minions of Day and Night' are more convincingly realised, a great deal of their backgrounds and culture relayed during the course of the book.

Kluge, the commander of the Minions, seems far more dangerous and far more real than the sorceresses ever do, his strengths and weaknesses almost as well explored as Tristan's.

To be fair to Robert Newcomb, 'The Fifth Sorceress' is not all bad. Much of the description of scenes and locations is well phrased and evocative and the complicated way in which all magic derives from a single gem is intriguing, if somewhat contrived to aid the plot.

The prologue is by far the best part of the book, stirring the imagination and giving the impression that the main body of the story will continue its gritty, dark flavour. However, the novel quickly descends into stilted dialogue and poorly realised characters, failing to live up to the promise of the prologue. By the time the uninspiring, bizarrely clichéd climax rolls around I found myself caring little for the fate of the characters or the world in which they live.

Clunky, unoriginal, and contrived, 'The Fifth Sorceress' is a book that brings nothing new to the genre and attempts to recycle corny old formulae as fresh and new. The novel never manages to evoke any emotion beyond a feeling of bemused confusion and at times drops into the comically ridiculous. As such, I am relegating it to my 'New clichés for old' shelf.

This review was originally written for