Thursday, 14 February 2008

Book review: The Blood King

The Blood King

By Gail Z. Martin

(Solaris 2008)

Gail Z. Martin's debut novel The Summoner was a bit of a surprise; a novel that embraced some of the most common fantasy elements and forged them into a highly readable novel. I was therefore interested to see if Martin could meet my heightened expectations in the second book, The Blood King.

The scene was certainly set plot-wise, with Tris and his allies planning their invasion of Margolan to cast down the evil usurper, Jared Drayke. At the same time, Tris struggles with both the power that flows through him and the doubt that plagues his mind. All the ingredients were in the pot; it was time to see what happened when they were all mixed together and left to simmer.

While The Summoner was a good debut novel, it did (inevitably) contain one or two rough edges. These are mostly ironed out in The Blood King; thankfully the word 'rasped' is used much less frequently for a start. There are still moments where the odd snatch of dialogue breaks the atmosphere, such as Jared's irritating insistence that he could always "whip your [Tris's] ass" which jars a little (I always have difficulty imagining an inhabitant of a medieval-esque world saying the word 'ass' in that context). Still, Martin's prose and dialogue has always been a strong point and continues to be so in The Blood King.

As the story develops, it takes on a darker edge than we saw in the first book. I particularly liked the introduction of the ashtenerath and the appearances of the Formless One. The religious aspect of Martin's series - the eight aspects of the Goddess - is something that works well for me, and I enjoyed seeing this particular aspect in more depth. One problem that affects some novels (and Martin's to a certain extent) is that when a divine entity champions a mortal individual, it blurs the line between free-will and destiny, sometimes making the plot concerning that character a bit redundant in the sense that you always expect them to succeed, given their divine assistance. This is not really the case with The Blood King, yet it did cross my mind now and then.

Martin continues to develop the relationships between her characters, which are at all times believable if a little predictable. It was good to see Gabriel and Mikhail involved more in the proceedings, as vampires are always pretty cool. I would have liked a bit more involvement with the Blood Council, as I think there could have been some interesting plotlines if they were involved more fully.

I get the feeling however that the next book in the series (which will begin a new story arc) will include the council a lot more. There's life yet in these creatures of the night.

So, Martin's writing is as strong as it was the first time around, there are some interesting darker elements added to the mix and the characters are still engaging. Sounds like we're onto another winner here, right? Sadly, not quite. There is only one real flaw with The Blood King, but it's a big one: the plot doesn't measure up.

Going back to the idea of using well-trodden fantasy tropes, my line of thinking is that there's no problem with writing, for example, a story with a dark lord, a magic sword and a farmboy long as you mix it up a little. Not just for the sake of it, but to make the story more individual, to add a bit of panache to the proceedings. An element of surprise.

This is where The Blood King falls short; everything is set up nicely for the concluding part of the story, but unfortunately it's all too straightforward. There are precious few twists and turns, and you can't escape the feeling that you know exactly how it's all going to pan out. There were one or two moments where I actually felt my interest waning slightly. Added to this are a couple of holes in the plot including one which has such a crucial impact you can't believe the character in question was dumb enough to let it happen. It's just all a bit too tidy, too convenient. Furthermore, the ending is a bit of an anti-climax, it just seems too low-key. I was expecting fireworks, but only got a couple of firecrackers instead.

This drawback isn't enough to ruin the book, which is still an enjoyable read, but it does let down the intriguing world and engaging characters that Martin has created. Still, with Martin contracted to write two more novels in the series, there's a chance for redemption. Martin has shown she can write and create absorbing worlds and characters, all she needs to fully deliver is provide a more exciting, less predictable plot and we're on to a winner.



T.D. Newton said...

Wow, I really could not have said it better myself. I totally agree; the book was truly just predictable from end to end but it wasn't bad. Every "obstacle" that Tris and his pals ran across really truly seemed to be delaying the inevitable (which proved 100% true).

You didn't think the dialog was kind of repetitive? I'm not sure why I noticed it so much in this book but it really jumped out to me. Especially the "said" words... way too noticeable.

In the end, though, it was a good book and I agree again on the religion of Martin's world as a solid point. I was kind of disappointed that this story arc ended so "quickly" but I am glad she's contracted to write two more books in this vein. Hopefully I can find enough to keep me busy until the next one.

J.G. Thomas said...

That's an interesting point about the dialogue; I have to say I didn't really notice. I agree that this story arc could have been longer; there is easily room for another major plotline (I was hoping the Blood Council would form a seperate plotline but sadly this didn't materialise).

As for things to keep you going...have you read any Joe Abercrombie? Highly recommended.

Sara J. said...

I find that sometimes even if an author writes a predictable plot, if the characters or world are engaging enough, it doesn't matter. In regards to the tropes specifically, I agree that you can take common elements of the genre and use them well, but it takes something more to stand out when you're in a sea of writers who do the same thing.

J.G. Thomas said...

I agree Sara, however in the case of The Blood King I don't think the characters are enough to make up for the plot. Sure, they are well-rounded characters with plenty of depth but I think the linear, predictable plot clips their wings to a certain extent.