Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: The Stoneholding

The Stoneholding: Legacy of the Stone Harp, Book I
Where men are men, women are women, and everybody makes stupid decisions.

The Stoneholding by James G. Anderson and Mark Sebanc.  Legacy of the Stone Harp, book 1.  Baen (Riverdale):  2009.  Paperback.  604 pages.  $7.99.  ISBN:  978-1-4391-3349-1.

(I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher.)

Kicking around and looking at other comments on The Stoneholding, I get the impression this is one of those novels people tend either to love or hate.  I'm not seeing much in the way of opinions in between, so as you read the present review it's worth keeping in mind that your mileage may vary.  I tried to stay balanced as I read, but by the end, I landed in the hate camp.  I have exactly one reason for the hatin', and I suspect whether a person loves or hates this novel will depend almost entirely on how much he cares about that one thing.

Set in a more-or-less standard post-Lord of the Rings fantasy universe, The Stoneholding, first volume of the Legacy of the Stone Harp series, introduces us to the land of Arvon, where the crown prince has been mysteriously missing for several years and the land is now misruled by an evil oligarchy.  This mostly affects the eastern lowlands, while the western highlands, due to their inaccessibility, still enjoy some independence.  The most important of these highland realms is the Stoneholding of the title, wherein dwells the Hordanu, a powerful bard who preserves an eternal sacred flame and a magical gold harp used in an annual ceremony to maintain the world's balance.  After lowland Arvon makes a pact with the evil Gharssulian League, Gharssul's agents extinguish the sacred flame and invade the Stoneholding.  Two chipper young men, Kal and Galli, join with the aging Hordanu Wilum to rescue as many of the Stoneholding's inhabitants as they can, as well as a number of important MacGuffins, before heading into the mountains in the hope of escaping the enemy soldiers and beginning their quest to find the missing crown prince and restore the sacred fire before the world reels into chaos.

Although nothing in The Stoneholding stands out as unique, it has a decent premise and a well-constructed world.  Anderson and Sebanc obviously spent a lot of time figuring out the geography, which gets described in considerable detail, though many of those passages read more like technical descriptions of a map than like word-portraits of a landscape.  The larger cosmology and mythological history, centered around the magic harp, are well-developed and delivered to the reader at an appropriate pace.  The situation the characters face is dire enough to be interesting in itself.  The villain Farabek makes only a brief appearance and spends most of his time monologuing about his evil plans, but he's sufficiently wicked to be mildly entertaining, and he's apparently opened a gateway to the underworld and released some nasty beasties; although that means little in this first novel, it promises some fun in the sequels.

Where The Stoneholding suffers, and in my opinion suffers fatally, is in the characters.  Mind you, I don't expect deep, well-rounded characters in a sword-and-sorcery book (though they are a pleasant surprise when I find them), but I do expect the characters to at least have motives for what they do and to have entertaining if one-dimensional personalities.  But to call the characters in The Stoneholding one-dimensional would be to ascribe at least half a dimension too many to them.  The characters are mono-emotional; they are gifted with one emotion each:  all the young men are chipper, all the old men are melancholy, all the matrons are smothering, all the hard-working farmers are windy, and all the turncoats are foul-tempered.  It is as if Anderson and Sebanc spent a great deal of time building a world, but then forgot to populate it.  As a result, the characters appear to have no reasons for their actions; they are simply moved around by the needs of the plot like pieces on a chess board.

This causes two big problems:  eye-glazingly boring expository dialogue and plot-induced stupidity.

The characters tend to speak for multiple pages at a time without taking a breath, usually to explain the plot to the reader, reveal their nefarious plans just when the heroes happen to be hiding nearby, describe in detail what they've been doing over the last few days, or talk about maps.  Because of the flatness of the characters, I at times got confused over who was speaking, and on one occasion I forgot anyone was speaking and thought we were back to the narrative.  The characters of Kal and Galli, who are chipper young men and best friends, are indistinguishable; I quickly lost track of who was who whenever they were on the page together.  The bouts of dialogue make the shallowness of the characters at times painful:  in an important scene near the novel's middle, the aging Hordanu gives Kal an extremely important job to do, one Kal never expected to get, yet most of the conversation between them consists of the Hordanu describing the map in detail and Kal repeatedly exclaiming the sword-and-sorcery equivalent of "Golly!"  It is supposed to be one of the most important scenes in the book, but it has no emotion.

The lack of even minimal character depth results in an idiot plot.  The protagonists appear to have no wills of their own; they simply go from place to place as the plot dictates.  Whenever there is a serious turn in the story, the characters become moronic long enough to make the stupid decisions that will cause the turn to come about.  This happened so frequently that I began to suspect the big twist at the end of the novel would be the revelation that the characters are at crucial moments having their wills stolen away by a malevolent force.  Allow me to describe the worst example:

The Stoneholding features three or four quislings who decide to sell out to the Gharssulians and have all their friends and neighbors slaughtered.  At one point, the survivors of Gharssul's purge are huddled together in their final stronghold where they will in all likelihood make their last stand.  They have recently discovered that two of their members (I don't remember the names) are among the quislings, so like any good fantasy novel heroes, they let the quislings go free to join with the enemy and tell the enemy where the heroes are hiding, how many are with them, how they're armed, etc.  Another character, who has some kind of unwholesome-sounding name like Flatulorr or Excretoff, or maybe just Turncoat-3, has been seen conversing at length with the quislings.  He has an irascible and peevish personality, just like the quislings.  When speaking of him, other characters say things like, "I think he might be a quisling."  Then our hero Kal finds Turncoat-3 hastily running through an area he shouldn't be in, and Turncoat-3 offers the fumbling excuse that another character who would never entrust him with anything has entrusted him with an important mission.  Kal believes him.  Lo and behold, it turns out that Turncoat-3 has betrayed them all to the enemy.  Later, Turncoat-3 returns, apparently repentant, and Kal believes him, and Turncoat-3 betrays them again.

Mind you, this problem could have been alleviated somewhat if Turncoat-3 or any of the other quislings had even an iota of craftiness, but they are all nakedly treacherous.  I could see their betrayals coming from miles away, yet the protagonists are oblivious.  Although the example described here is the most grievous--and, sadly, the whole story turns on it--it is by no means isolated.  Every advance in the plot hinges on somebody doing something bafflingly stupid.  Even the deus ex machina that causes the novel to dwindle off without a climax begins when Kal foolishly runs pell-mell through a dark cave and falls off a cliff.

Having said all that, I would add that this novel is a first for Anderson and Sebanc.  They both have respectable writing credits already, and it is apparent that they have real skill.  Although it at times strains too hard for an archaic feel, the prose is mostly quite good.  The worldbuilding, as I already mentioned, is competent, but Anderson and Sebanc appear to have a few things to learn about character development, plot construction, and dialogue writing.  I cannot but pronounce The Stoneholding a failure, but I hope--indeed, I expect--that the Legacy of the Stone Harp will improve significantly in the sequels.  Or, even if this entire series turns out to be a wash, I expect the authors to produce more worthwhile work later on.  I certainly hope they produce some stronger novels; they are both Catholic writers, and this book is wholesome without being preachy or pretentious.

Content Advisory:  Contains action violence.
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