Thursday, 2 October 2003

The Fifth Sorceress

Robert Newcomb
Transworld
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 SFcrowsnest.com