Tuesday, 2 November 2004

The Scrolls of the Ancients

Robert Newcomb
Bantam Press
ISBN: 0-593-04963-2

The third and apparently final book in Robert Newcomb’s ‘Chronicles of Blood and Stone’, ‘The Scrolls of the Ancients’ sees our hero Prince Tristan and his entourage once again assailed by the servants of darkness.

Following the collapse of the Gates of Dawn and the death of Tristan’s villainous son, you’d think that the crown prince and his surviving wizards would be busy rebuilding their shattered realm. Nope, apparently the effort of putting paid to Nicholas’ nefarious schemes was a bit much for them, and while the people of Eutracia suffer hunger and banditry we find our gallant hero and his friends shacked up in the royal palace, enjoying a little R&R.

Only when their card game is rudely interrupted by the megalomaniacal Krassus, master of the sinister arts of the Vagaries, does their bubble burst. After handily defeating the combined might of the protagonists, Krassus in his gloating reveals a new and deadly threat to the world.

Prince Tristan and his sister Shailiha are the Chosen Ones, but unbeknownst to them another exists to rival them; their lost half-brother Wulfgar. If Krassus were to find him, he could use the newly uncovered power of the Scroll of the Vagaries to turn him to the dark side and destroy the benevolent magic of the Vigours forever! Gasp!

After giving his helpless enemies his annotated plans for world domination, Krassus departs in dramatic fashion, leaving the heroes unharmed. Hot on his tail Tristan and co. begin the search for Wulfgar and the other Scroll of the Ancients, in an attempt to thwart the archwizard’s schemes.

Their hunt will take them from Eutracia’s poverty-stricken capital to the hidden pirate fortress of Sanctuary and beyond, as the climatic confrontation with the servants of the Vagaries draws inevitably nearer. Featuring demons, birdmen, pirates and exploding herbs, the adventures of Tristan must be seen to be believed.

Never a truer sentence was written. Some part of me deep inside wonders if Robert Newcomb’s books and ‘the Scrolls of the Ancients’ in particular are some sort of incredibly sophisticated satire attempt. If that should be the case, then labelling ‘The Chronicles of Blood and Stone’ as serious fantasy was the most inspired marketing decision this world has ever seen.

As it is, the series’ concluding novel is the most head-shakingly, hair-tearingly, book-hurlingly diabolical excuse for literature I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. It is the written equivalent of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, only Ed Wood had a better grasp of plot and dialogue. There is no way any reader could make it to the last page with their sanity intact; what that says for me, I’m not sure. ‘The Scroll of the Ancients’ has hit the barrier marked ‘point of no return’ and carried on accelerating, past ‘so bad it’s good’ and on into uncharted territory.

Lets start with the characters. These are no living, breathing individuals, complete with their own hopes, fears and idiosyncrasies. Instead we have a collective of cardboard cutouts whose sole reason for existence is to prod the narrative in the right direction.

Tristan, for example, is a paragon of virtue with the emotional range of a brick wall. He exists simply to dish out bloody and unrealistic violence and give the wizards Wigg and Faegan cue to begin another chapter-length block of expositionary dialogue. Krassus, on the other hand, is a pantomime villain in the most traditional sense, complete with insane laughter, random acts of senseless cruelty, and no redeeming features whatsoever. There are no attempts to grant him any particular humanity, or explain his actions. He is Evil (with a capital ‘e’), and that’s enough.

In real life there are shades of grey, but in Robert Newcomb’s world everything is black or white, good or bad. More than anything else this lack of human ambiguity in either heroes or villains makes it impossible to empathise with the characters, or even care about the events unfurling.

The supporting cast are no better. Either they act as humanoid milestones marking Tristan’s bloody progress through the novel or they exist as lesser replicates of our hero, fulfilling his twin duties of slaying and stupidity when the prince royal is unavailable. Only the wizards are exempt, for they serve a different purpose. They must ensure that the reader (via the transparent mechanism of informing their selectively idiotic companions) understands in intricate and soul-sapping detail every tiniest aspect of how the unusual magic system works. I can only imagine that Robert Newcomb somehow grew so enamoured of his creation that he mistakenly believed his readers would prefer great swathes of the book devoted to its workings, rather than to the plot.

In fact, it seems as though the author is fascinated by minutiae in general. To give him credit the descriptive writing in ‘the Scroll of the Ancients’ is above par, occasionally surprising the reader with an elegantly turned phrase or an evocative image. Newcomb overdoes it, though, and as such the half-page description of a character’s clothing in the middle of a battle scene is enough to break the mood before it’s really got started. Outside of combat it gets even worse, with – among other things – the step-by-step process for separating different types of magical herb relayed in coma-inducing detail. This level of description is admirable but ultimately counter-productive, destroying any reader immersion and leaving one frustrated.

While the plot that drives it all is a far-reaching and ambitious one that in the right hands could provide a solid foundation for a novel, in this case it is criminally mismanaged. To stay afloat ‘The Scroll of the Ancients’ relies on the ability of each and every character to second-guess their opponents with uncanny and ridiculous accuracy, as well as some truly nonsensical behaviour on both sides. It is the story that drives the characters, not the other way around. This, combined with inconsistencies and logic flaws a child could see, is what sinks the ship.

As the book drew to a close and I counted the remaining pages with glee, several major issues remained unresolved. As the unread paragraphs grew fewer and fewer it became apparent that these matters would, in fact, never be brought to a conclusion. This seems a very bizarre thing in what is supposed to be the series’ final book, not least because the entire trilogy has been laying the groundwork for certain events. There have been prophecies and omens and no end of discussion, but then… nothing. On top of that at least one unrequited romance and one major villain remain outstanding, as though the author totally forget about them. The only thing I can think of is that there is to be a further book in the series; the alternative is just too unlikely. As you may imagine, this strange absence of any kind of closure makes the novel even more frustrating than ever.

Possessing of some decent writing, ‘the Scrolls of the Ancients’ is nonetheless damaged beyond any hope of recovery by poor characterisation, non-existent pacing and truly abominable dialogue. Perfectly balanced between idiotic, boring and frustrating, this book should be avoided like a particularly virulent plague – unless you liked the first two, of course, in which case I can only hope the disease isn’t catching. I’d prefer never to see the book again, keeping painful flashbacks to a minimum, but if I were forced to place it in my collection, it would be on the shelf entitled ‘abandon hope, all ye who enter here’.

You have been warned.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com