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Friday, September 9, 2011

A Thief in the Night - David Chandler

If I told you this was 
the movie poster for 
Ladyhawke would you 
be surprised?
I am never excited to write a negative review.  Last month I reviewed the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy titled Den of Thieves.  David Chandler's first foray into high fantasy had its problems.  I regret to report problems have continued into A Thief in the Night albeit not always the same ones.  After finishing the novel I wondered why I didn't like it?  Harper Voyager liked it enough to purchase the entire trilogy and release them over three months.  Is it possible there's something fundamentally flawed in the way I read the novel?  Are my expectations out of whack?

I'm 30 years old and I've read a lot of fantasy over the last twenty years.  My first fantasy novel was in the 7th grade - Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain.  I moved on to The Sword of Shannara, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, The Dragonlance Chronicles, and every other book I could lay my hands on that was available at the Vista Campana Middle School library in Apple Valley, California.  I wanted sweeping epic fantasy with dwarves, elves, and all kinds of other fantastic constructions conveyed in straight forward no nonsense prose.  The farm boy prophesied to save the world was the end all be all for young Justin.

Somewhere along the road to adulthood I decided I wanted a little more from my fantasy and modern fantasy has delivered.  Of course, fantasy has always had ambition - Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, John Crowley's Little, Big, Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, to name a few.  But, for the most part, the development of more ambitious epic/high fantasy is recent.  Authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and Steven Erikson have brought a great deal more depth to the sub-genre.  Elves and dwarves are largely gone and the farm boy is more likely to get a sword through the stomach before he gets far enough into the game to impact anything.  Abraham has even gone so far as to turn the farm boy paradigm into a female alcoholic banker.  These authors led me full circle back to Holdstock, Crowley, and Beagle who have in turn led me to Gene Wolfe, Carthrynne Valente, and China MiĆ©ville.

And yet, I very much enjoyed James Barclay's Chronicles of the Raven and Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations both of whom in terms of world construction and character archetypes bear close resemblance to Chandler's Ancient Blades Trilogy.  I guess what I'm saying is that while I may have developed tastes that take me beyond elves, dwarves, and straight forward narratives, it doesn't mean that I'm not up for a simple adventure romp from time to time.  If that's true, and my expectations aren't broken, then why didn't I enjoy the first two installments in Chandler's series?

I'm so glad I asked - because they just aren't as good.  The prose is fine and even quite good in places if a bit overwritten.  The stories themselves aren't terribly contrived, at least no more so than "comparable" novels like the aforementioned Barclay and Sullivan.  But, and it's a big one, I cannot ignore a novel whose plot and characers just aren't interesting.  It's unfortunate that Chandler has fallen into this category because I actually think there's a lot of potential in the world he's created - which is interesting.

Based on a serf/lord model of medieval Europe, it's a world where most folk are oppressed.  In the free-city of Ness, where Den takes place entirely and Thief begins, everyone is free to choose their own destiny - albeit options are rather limited.  Magic is based on the summoning and harnessing of demonic energy.  To combat this threat to the fabric of reality seven blades were created and seven warriors were chosen to wield them.  But demons have almost been exterminated and the ancient blades aren't quite sure to do with themselves.  Cool premise, no?  Once things move beyond world building though, the whole thing falls flat.

The two points of view Chandler writes from - Malden and Croy - undergo a shift in Thief where they betray the mores built up throughout the series.  To me, it all felt very forced as though the characters changed because the author needed them to. Brent Weeks, author of the Night Angel Trilogy and the bestseller The Black Prism wrote:
Other than looking like
an Indiana Jones travel
montage, this cover is
clearly superior to the
US  version.
"My characters are mine. They must do what I have decided they will do. If you get to a point in the story where you realize your characters will not do that thing and remain true to themselves, you have a couple of options: you can just make them do it for the sake of the story, and your story will suck. Or you can sit there and wrestle with it. "
For me, Chandler swung and missed at this.  I understand where he wanted to take his protagonists.  I just didn't buy it.

I also struggled with Chandler's use of magic throughout the novel.  Cythera - Malden and Croy's mutual love interest - has an ability to absorb curses.  This absorption manifests itself as tattoos on her body.  In the first novel Cythera cannot be touched lest this magical energy be unleashed.  Lo and behold, come Thief she can release such energy at anyone/thing she likes.  Brandon Sanderson in his treatise on magic (which I highly recommend) said:
"If we simply let ourselves develop new rules every time our characters are in danger, we will end up creating fiction that is not only unfulfilling and unexciting, but just plain bad."
For example, Thief takes the merry band of adventures to an ancient city that's been entombed beneath a mountain.  The entrance is chained shut with magical chains that (it seems) will strike anyone dead who touches them.  Cythera, being magically cursed, touches them, absorbs their power, and channels it to burn a hole in the door.  Snazzy, right?  Of course, she couldn't do this in Den and I didn't see any explanation about this new found ability.  I suspect this scene was included to setup how a much more pivotal conflict is resolved in the novel's conclusion (actually, in EXACTLY the same way).  Instead, a few sentences about how Cythera has been learning to control her ability and using a well established capability of another party member to open the door (say... I don't know the master engineer of a dwarf maybe?) would have been more interesting and set up the later scene just as well.

Ok, so I think it's fairly obvious that I really didn't like A Thief in the Night (or Den of Thieves for that matter) and I don't want to further belabor the point.  The truth is, they're not bad books.  I read them both quickly and never cast them aside.  However, as a reviewer advising my readers about what is worth their time, or not, I believe there are far better options available.

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