Monday, August 10, 2009

"A Darkness Forged in Fire" by Chris Evans

Title: "A Darkness Forged in Fire"
Author: Chris Evans
Pages: 615 soft copy
Genre: Epic/Military Fantasy
Standalone/Series: Book One of the Iron Elves
Publisher: Pocket Books

What can you expect: I can state with a great deal of personal conviction that “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is a strong and stable debut, which is a seldom find. Bordering between traditional fantasy, which is centered on a quest and the greater balance between good and evil, and military fiction as a hybrid it can easily secure a mixed audience.

Pros: Straight-forward and dynamic story, which is a fine break from winding plot lines caught in a maze. Unconventional portrayal of decades old cannons in fantasy literature. Good natured and organically tied humor to both story and dialogue.

Cons: The author’s attempt to veil the characters’ and world’s more interest-gauging details and aspects hinders the introductory purpose of a first novel in a series. As a result one can feel certain shallowness, when it comes to world building and characterization. Also the romance portions feel forced.

Summary: In an unforgiving world of brutal conflict—where musket and cannon, bow and arrow, magic and diplomacy are all weapons in the Calahrian Empire—there’s no denying that Konowa Swiftdragon, former commander of the Empire’s Iron Elves, could be looked upon as anything but ordinary. He’s murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and finally been banished to the one place he despises the most—the forest. Now all he wants is to be left alone . . . but for Konowa, nothing is ever that simple.

A falling Red Star in the east heralds the return of magic long vanished from the earth, sparking a frantic race within the Empire to reach it first. Now Konowa is recalled to duty and asked to reform the Iron Elves—only the soldiers he gets aren’t quite what he was expecting. And worse, their key adversary to obtain the Star is none other than the dreaded Shadow Monarch—a legendary elf-witch whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine…

Characters: Characterization is brittle ice over a frozen February lake. It breaks with relative ease and can single handedly drag a story beneath the cold. Chris has conjured a strong and versatile cast, at least on theory. We have the dark redeemer outcast in the face of Konowa Swiftdragon and the coming of age character in Private Alwyn Renwar. There is the nature concerned humanitarian mage as Visyna Tekoy and even the twisted antagonist’s henchman as Viceroy Faltinal Gwyn.

In theory these character’s narratives combined should elevate the story and breathe in a specific essence. As I have already mentioned because Evans keeps information about his characters, these never fully spring to life. Despite the fact the narratives themselves are reasonably written, I couldn’t connect with the protagonists. What’s peculiar is that my affections fell on the supporting cast, Her Majesty’s scribe Rallie Synjyn and Private Yimt Arkhorn, who effortlessly stole the spotlight with lively antics and original jokes.

I understand that perhaps Chris has plans for his leading cast in further installments and chooses to be modest with their pasts, but in the end there is not enough substance to explain their drive and motivations. As of right now I am not impressed by the characterization, but the sequel might prove to be otherwise.

The Story: Here is the part, where “A Darkness Forged in Fire” shines and compensates for most issues with characters. My weakness is world building and the slightest even remotely original or encountered by me design has the ability to erase all the elements that don’t work with me and so is the case here. Chris Evans is a genius to take the traditionally accepted environment of many races and to propel its development several centuries ahead and right into an authentic Napoleon era, where black powder and musket fire kept peace, forged alliances and conquered enemies. I stray away from military fiction, but the extra bits around a soldier’s everyday life, the importance of his kit, marching, ceremonies and of course battle strategy immersed me as a reader. Although the author expects the readers to know this and that about warfare in general the novel is written in an accessible manner. What adds more is the fact that I am spared the brutal reality of male aggression, gritty dark moments and obscene language. The grittiness expected is censured and instead a more light-hearted and romanticized concept takes center stage.

Outside the army, the world is entertaining enough to explore as well. With the unusual everyday fauna and flora, there are mythical beasts and dark forces that twist the natural order and provide countless enemies from rakes, dog spiders to blood trees and dark elves. There are some fascinating takes on the traditional environment, which kept my attention with expectance that something else might pop up with no warning. Yet, where there are strengths there are faults as well. In the world building department I thought that perhaps a bit more could have been explained about the mythology and mechanisms behind magic. The world itself is rich, but manages to be vague and there is an absence of rules to frame it. In the end I had compiled questions upon questions about everything.

For a thick book I can argue that “A Darkness Forged in Fire” rests on a rather simplified search-and-retrieve mission, so readers shouldn’t expect a labyrinth of winding and deceptive subplots. I find this refreshing, because sometimes my mind tires with keeping track with intricate plotting and demands a what-you-see-is-what-you-get story.

The Verdict: I loved it. Despite all the kinks, which I perceived as unimportant enough to ruin my experience, the story and its charged took over my critical approach as a reviewer and I enjoyed it successfully. You should definitely read it and you shouldn’t let the technicalities frighten you, when content and entertainment value exceed all expectations.

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