Tuesday 5 February 2008

Book review: The Summoner

The Summoner
By Gail Z. Martin
(Solaris 2007)

I was careful not to get too excited about Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner. While I had heard promising things about the novel, I was aware that it was published by Solaris, who had also put out James Maxey's Bitterwood. If you've read my earlier post about Bitterwood, you'll know that I just didn't get on with that book. So I approached The Summoner with caution, not quite sure what to expect.

The (extremely good) cover however dropped a heavy hint, while the blurb on the back confirmed my suspicions: this was not going to be a ground-breaking work of stunning originality, but a novel that instead would tread fairly familiar ground.

The general premise is as follows: evil prince kills king with aid of nasty wizard, good prince hits the road to find help and gradually realises that with his burgeoning magical power, he is the only one who can restore the kingdom to its former glory.

Some might call this a traditional fantasy story. Others might use less polite terms. Whatever phrases you prefer to use, there is no getting away from it: The Summoner embraces many of the standard fantasy tropes. There's a dark lord, plenty of magic, nasty dark beasts, a few skirmishes, divine intervention, arcane weaponry and plenty of taverns and serving wenches.

Until recently, I admit that I viewed books that contained so many standard elements with disdain. I'd take delight in reading a book's blurb just to count how many over-used plot devices the novel seemed to incorporate. "Can't they think of anything original?" I would mutter as I glared at the shelves of novels.

Then I realised one day that I was criticising the very things that drew me to fantasy in the first place. The dark lords, the magic swords, the adventure...this is why I was sucked into fantasy. So what the hell was I thinking by turning my nose up at such things? I decided that I needed to reconnect with the most basic, familiar fantasy tropes. I was ready for magic swords and dark lords again. So I picked up The Summoner.

Now, borrowing heavily from standard fantasy elements presents a problem: you have to work extra hard to entertain the reader, as most of them will have seen it all before. Fortunately, Martin delivers.

Most significantly, her characters are all likeable with plenty of depth. Tris is a protagonist you can really root for, while Kiara is a strong female lead with real spirit. Vahanian is perfect as the dark horse mercenary-come-good, while Arontala makes for a convincing villain.

Martin's writing is another strong point; her prose is fluid with sharp, convincing dialogue. It may be her debut novel, but you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was her tenth, as she writes with such an engaging style. Striking a good balance between description and action, the atmosphere of her world is allowed to grow without becoming too intrusive: the focus is always on the characters and their actions.

The strongest point of the story itself is the way spirit magic is used and the effects it has on Tris. Magic is a tricky subject to get right, but Martin manages to create a feasible system that manages to be both plausible and intriguing at the same time. I particularly liked the emphasis on the undead in the novel, and the importance of spirits to the plot was, at least in my experience, a fresh twist. The presence of the vayash moru (that's vampires to you and me) was also a welcome addition.

The novel does have its drawbacks. The story sags a little in the middle third, while Martin's frequent tendency to use the word 'rasped' during dialogue becomes a bit of a distraction. There are also a couple of arguably unnecessary info-dumps early on that perhaps could have been handled a bit better (or possibly dropped altogether).

These minor negatives don't stop The Summoner from being a surprising triumph. If you read it with an open mind and don't expect anything too original, you'll find an enjoyable adventure with colourful characters and plenty of the elements that make fantasy so damned good in the first place.


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