Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: The Ninth Avatar, by Todd Newton

(This is a repost of my review that appeared on SF Signal recently - reposted here for posterity)

Paperback: 374 pages
Publisher: Trapdoor Books; 1ST edition (February 26, 2010)
ISBN-10: 098420704X
ISBN-13: 978-0984207046

Flying wizards, an army of the reanimated dead, a giant alabaster gargoyle, dragons, oh my! All of this should be lending itself to a great epic story of adventure, excitement and grand fantasy. But it all just comes off...awkward.

Yep, awkward, that was the word that kept popping to mind as I read; forcing myself through this story that I should have stopped before hitting triple-digit page numbers.

It starts off with an old, but promising, fantasy trope: evil army seeks global domination. We’ve seen it before, but a great setting and intriguing characters can still cut a swath of enjoyment. Here’s where, unfortunately, Newton’s first book didn’t deliver. The characters are thinly conceived and awkward. It’s rare when something feels natural and I’m left with the feeling that Newton wanted too big of a story; so he pushed his characters through it, changing them as he saw fit, whether it worked for their personality or not.

The main character, Starka, starts off decently. A backstory and interest are built and you expect great things to happen. You also expect her to seek out her beloved, missing twin, but thoughts of her dear brother quickly fall off the radar and Starka’s character begins to unravel. She is shown to have no firm ideas and no ability to defend herself. However, she consistently puts herself in harms way, where she is both no help and a liability; with those that know better doing little to dissuade her. This is forced drama and adds nothing. I could have appreciated her more if she had at least shown some common sense or intelligence, but she does neither.

One scene that sticks out painfully for me involves Starka wandering aimlessly in the midst of battle, finding a large cluster of darkly mysterious crystals.  Despite knowing nothing about them, in a world of magic and danger, she picks them up and lugs them around the battlefield—aimless, like she was strolling through the mall with a prize find. Why was she not hiding, fearful of the carrion soldiers, and worried about her comrades?

I have no idea.

Yes, her party is composed of powerful warriors that kick a lot of hiney, but there is far too much emphasis on how deadly the enemy soldiers are for them to be ignored. In fact, one problem about this book is that there is too much magic. Everyone has some power or ability and it kills the sense of suspense.

Behind the scenes, the world appears large and diverse, with thousands of years of history, talk of wizard wars, and more. Normally this would be a good thing, but it never comes across as vivid and compelling. It’s told as fluff in an attempt to make the world seem larger and more fantastic. The book would have been no worse without it, and perhaps better.

I wonder idly if the author was afflicted with World-Builder’s disease—a common ailment of the starting fantasy writer. I’ve been there, it can be hard to kick.

Ultimately, Mr. Newton bit off more than he could chew and I can only give this 1 star. At only 300-some pages, the dozens of characters, ship voyages, expansive travel, and multiple cities sucks out any life that could have been breathed in. There were many stories that could have been pulled from this book and made into a far superior piece than the combined hodgepodge.

I should note that I made it to page 200-something before I pulled the curtain. So, Mr. Newton, if you somehow pulled off the amazing and ended with something phenomenal...I missed it.

(P.S. Writing this review was agonizing. Todd Newton is a nice guy and worthy of following on twitter or his blog. Given time, I think that he may become an author of note. But, his first effort is not going to be THAT book.

I should also disclose that Newton bought me this book. [Aren’t I lovely for writing a bad review.] This made it difficult to write of my distaste. No matter his explicit blog post noting the benefits of bad reviews.)

Did you read it and what did you think?

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