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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sword of Fire and Sea - Erin Hoffman

I have a sneaking suspicion that Sword of Fire and Sea is going to be one of the more polarizing novels of 2011 as a perfect example of form over substance.  Erin Hoffman's debut from Pyr has a beautiful voice, and a fully realized, textured world.  It has gryphons, pegasus, and elemental magic all of which evoke whimsy and a general sense of romance.  Ultimately though, the primary motive force of any novel is its story and there Hoffman falls flat, failing to adequately lay the foundation for events later in the novel.

Packaged as a travel narrative, Sword is told from the perspective of ship Captain Vidarian Rulorat, a highly successful merchant with family ties to the fire priestesses of Kara'zul. Vidarian must fulfill his family's obligation by transporting a young fire priestess named Ariadel to a water temple far to the south, through dangerous pirate-controlled territory. A perilous journey in the best of conditions, Vidarian and Ariadel find themselves at the intersection of the world's most volatile elements and an ancient, alien power between them.

Unlike most genre novels, Sword didn't keep me up late into the night despite an frenetic plot.  Hoffman's style is more geared toward reading a chapter at a time to absorb her lyrical imagery, letting it breathe like a fine wine.  I found myself pausing from time to time to really relish over a nice turn of phrase or particularly well put together sentence.  To speak metaphorically, reading Sword felt like looking at an M.C. Escher painting, the longer I stared at it the more I saw.  All of this makes for a rich and textured reading experience.  Paragraphs alone to do not a good novel make though, and often Hoffman fails to connect her reader to her characters or her plot.

Functionally a travelogue, Sword bounces Vidarian all over the map, first with Ariadel by his side, and then to rescue her, and then to their ultimate goal.  I was watching a tennis match with a gryphon, in place of a fuzzy green ball, being batted back and forth across the continent by some unseen, but thoroughly dominant, forehand.  That's me being flip, but the truth is the pace and suddenness of the travel rarely gave me the opportunity to be comfortable with the story.  Instead, I was left scrambling to understand what was happening and more importantly why.

Equally as frustrating were the occasional terms, or factions that Hoffman assumes the reader to have knowledge.  I don't mind the slow world building, dropping new ideas from time to time, and explaining them later (God's War being a great example of this), but never explaining them just leads to confusion.  One in particular that comes to mind was the use of the term, Quenched, in reference to a fire priestess's power.  Early in the novel I presumed this meant one thing, only to find out it meant something else, only to learn it didn't mean that either.  With the novel over, I still don't really know it means.  While I might hazard a guess, it was frustrating that at every point in the novel I thought it meant something different, leaving me scratching my head when characters did things I thought they could no longer do.

The point is Sword reads like a debut novel.  In a year I've been spoiled by brilliant debuts this one just doesn't stand out.  I'm going to compare Hoffman to another author, Sam Sykes, whose debut novel, Tome of the Undergates, I reviewed early this year.  In terms of substance and style there's absolutely no similarity.  Sykes writes a gritty, schlocky style that's as dark as it is hilarious.  Like Hoffman, Sykes was a new author trying to find his way.  While he had some stumbles, mostly related to plot and pacing, he has an incredibly strong voice that's his own.  I can absolutely say the same about Erin Hoffman.  There is something uniquely her in the prose and that's special.  While I may not have enjoyed Sword of Fire and Sea as a narrative, I very much look forward to the author's future growth as a writer.

Thankfully, it looks like Pyr is going to give me that chance as they recently announced the purchase of two more novels in The Chaos Knight series.  I'll be sure to check them out.  You can visit Erin Hoffman's website and follow her Twitter.

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