Saturday, September 5, 2009

"The Ninth Avatar" by Todd Newton

Title: "The Ninth Avatar"
Author: Todd Newton
Pages: 452
Format: Novel
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery
Standalone/Series: Standalone as far as I can tell, but a hint towards a possible sequel and a prequel
Publisher: CreateSpace

What you can expect: A self-published novel, which breaks up the norm by combining aspects of sword & sorcery, epic fantasy and a hack & slash game atmosphere, but greatly suffering in execution.

Pros: I found the cast engaging at large, the setting to be up to my liking and the action to be addictive, while at the same time finding subtle messages about life, humanity and relations.

Cons: Although dynamic and thought provoking at moments, there is a flaw that can’t be overlooked in every category from characterization to pacing, from dialogue to prose.

For Starka, an outcast accused of incest, life is about as simple as one could hope. A prophecy of the ascension of the Avatar of Darkness changed that. Starka, protected by the mysterious warrior DaVille, tries desperately to prevent the disturbing prophecy from becoming a reality. The world is thrown into chaos as the Carrion Army comes to power, destroying the rival nations of Brong and Rochelle. Wan Du and Mayrah are drawn into the conflict when their homes are destroyed and Cairos, a wizard from the betrayed city of Illiadora, likewise seeks revenge for his fallen comrades. As the leader of the Carrion army seeks to cover the world in death and darkness to become a living embodiment of magic, these uncertain allies battle against an inevitable conclusion. The Ninth Avatar is coming.

Foreword: To those reading Temple Library Reviews more closely and misfortunate enough to have conversed with me know that I am a complete oddball. My fascination with zombies and cult worship of Tori Amos’ music should be indication enough. As such I have strange preferences and an unlikely combination of factors can and will hold my attention for a novel despite a large array of flaws. Call it literary self mutilation. This is the case with “The Ninth Avatar”, a novel with countless good kernels of ideas, which never turned out to be a good crop. Partially I blame this to the fact that via self-publishing venues the novel never got the chance to be professionally edited and whipped up in a decent shape. The rest goes down to the author, who is still developing his voice as well as his conscious choice to write a novel that in a trilogy. Despite this there are redeeming qualities that held my oddballish interest.

Characters: “The Ninth Avatar” relies on a heavy cast of narrative characters coming to the total number of eight. We have everything from protagonists to antagonists and villains, from warriors and generals to priests and wizards. The usual difficulties with managing such a cast are evident as in transition from character to character, the establishment of distinct voices and having enough chapter time to give sufficient background, understand their motives and motivations.

However dialogue here is the main issue. Conversations are held in a tone and manner with expressions that shouldn’t be found in a novel set in a medieval world. It bugged me, because it destroyed the atmosphere and jarred me, preventing me from getting deep into the story. I couldn’t bear the chapters with the Carrion generals, where their inner fight for power and position in front of their leader Zion took place or Zion as a whole, who comes off as a card board cop of dark overlords. Most intense conversations that should strike a chord with me flopped and that worked against the novel in general.

Despite that Newton tries his best to present the readers with a diverse and engaging cast. I found Starka’s naivety and childish purity earnest and entertaining, while her awakening to the real face of the world that is startlingly different from the image created by her culture to be satisfying. Cardinal Wadam, although unlikeable as a character, stands as a fully developed antagonist enveloped in his own pride and overestimated self worth as the self proclaimed Mouth of Myst.

DaVille is another character I enjoyed, for he is the fantasy version of a movie star. He is tall, mysterious and dangerous, with fighting prowess that defies all odds and cold calculated wits. The nature of his relationship with Starka thankfully doesn’t exceed the limits of a strange friendship forged by chance and filled with some kind of romantic tension. To me this was a very positive decision. In the bad boy and conflicted categories we also find Carios, a guilt ridden wizard on a quest to make amends with his conscious, who isn’t afraid to use whatever is necessary to achieve his goal.

But I would have liked to see these characters developed in greater detail. I couldn’t sense the moment Stark grew from timid to confident enough to return to her homeland and try to mend the wounds delivered to her people. I wished I knew more about DaVille to explain to myself his reasons to accept Zion’s dark gift.

The Story: “The Ninth Avatar” is a hybrid between sword & sorcery and epic fantasy, but even though it hosts an interesting mix of both genres, it suffers in the identity department. I am not very well versed in both genres and my short term memory certainly doesn’t aid me in this manner, but I always connected epic fantasy with a massive scale operation, nations at war, military strategies and well planed battles featuring vast armies, diplomacy and royalty. These stories grow and unwind slowly like a trudging beast, a dragon slowly ascending to the upper world shaking century’s old sleep and spreading slowly his wings and taking flight.

“The Ninth Avatar” read like a flush flood injected into a vein, rushing, erratic and missing cues. Plot threats are being ignored. The military aspect felt underdeveloped at large. After a certain page the war falls into the background with little matter. Wan Du and Mayrah’s arc and their sabotage operations muster no reaction from the enemy. I felt like the novel could benefit more without these two characters and their stories, securing more pages for a smaller cast that could have been better explored and a tighter story. Although the focus goes off to the revolution in Starka’s homeland and the impassiveness of the city of Flaem and large Carrion armies sweeping through the whole world, it’s all just background music to me. At the same time “The Ninth Avatar” can’t be called sword and sorcery, because the battles here aren’t personal, they are in the name for the greater good, for saving the world.

Be as it is, “The Ninth Avatar” offers a fresh new world, which doesn’t use common tropes such as the inclusion of dwarves and elves, although dragons and gargoyles do appear. He also draws successful parallels between his world and our own, showed in the culture and mutual self-exclusiveness portrayed in the behavior of different lands. In the lands of Myst, those not under the service of the holy trinity are lesser humans, heathens and savages, while anywhere else these religious people are looked down upon and unfavorable for their preachy predisposition. Brong and Rochelle are excellent examples of age long enemies, fighting for territory and for pride, but when the cost is too high at the end, only then do the survivors question their actions and power struggles.

The world fascinated me enough. Since the novel was aspired from a computer game project, the magic, creatures and enemy are more or less prototypes for a hack and slash title rather than those used in the genres. The creative freedom left to wizards to invent new spells, limited to their ingenuity and the nature of the nine pillars, one governing aspects of the world such as life, speech, action, change and secrets. This leaves so much room for exploration and the potential to be surprised at every moment by a wizard, although it also leaves the gates wide open for dues ex machine to pop up, which thankfully doesn’t happen. There are also a special breed of wizards, who all share an above average level of power and brought some really memorable scenes near the climax. I enjoyed the battle scenes that really toyed pushed the boundaries of believability, but as an anime fan I was ecstatic. Magic swords are still one of the things although used in novels to death are still a fun thing to enjoy.

The Verdict: “The Ninth Avatar” could have evolved nicely into a better novel, if the author had started a trilogy and this was the middle novel as well as if Newton had more novels under the belt to bring this complex creation to life.

Rating: 2/5


elnice said...

Great, honest review. I too would have been caught up on dull dialogue. Maybe if the do a sequel, it would allow for more character development.

Mark David said...

Oh that's sad about the flaws. But it's got a pretty nice cover don't you think? :)

Anyway, Harry, I've chosen you as one of my recipients for a blogger award. I hope you pick it up from my site:

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Elnice: Thank you. I try to be honest and balanced in what I say, which is usually a very tricky thing to do. I am glad I managed to pull it off.

Mark David: The cover art is easy on the eye and very serene. It turned out really well.

Thank you for nominating me. I will take great pleasure in receiving it.

Erica said...

Great review :) I can see what you would mean about the dialogue

Harry Markov: daydream said...

Thank you for stopping by. Dialogue for me is one of the easiest ways to spoil an experience. It bugs me in ways that narration and the other aspects simply can't.

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