on 8 August 2011
I'm going to start by giving no illusions as to what I thought of this book: it was awful. The main problem with Gail Z. Martin's first novel is that the writing is terrible. Overwritten, amateur descriptive talent, and crafting that reads more like campaign notes for a game of Dungeons and Dragons are only part of what make this book such a failure.
I'll make it clear that I a) listened to this as an audio book (the version of which likely added to the overall awfulness, given that out of nowhere, this epic fantasy world was filled wall-to-wall with deep-south US accents more fitting of gruff cowboys than anti-hero smugglers) and b) having not realised that Martin's new series, headed by The Sworn (released Feb 2011, by Orbit) followed on from the Chronicles with the same characters and world, I started this first, and can vouch for a vast improvement in her writing.
The Summoner begins well: Prince Martris Drayke is forced to flee with a handful of friends--two fighter-types and a bard--after his half-brother brings about the murder of his father, mother and sister. Then, Tris begins to realise he has the dormant powers of a Summoner--in fact, he is the Mage Heir of the Summoner, Bava K'aa. Conveniently, his grandmother.
When Tris and his friends have to run, with Jared's hatred hot on their heels, aided by a mage who pulls strings from behind the scenes, the story should turn into something riveting and exciting. It doesn't. The only part of the book with any genuine excitement is the beginning. And we're talking about a 600+ page book, here. It's a long story.
I wish I were exaggerating when I say nothing happens. The same formula carries the book from page one, to page six-hundred-and-too many. They travel, encounter trouble, someone is wounded, they recover, Tris discovers more about his magic, they travel. And repeat. The "chance" meetings along the road are obviously staged and the plot becomes very transparent. It's a huge pity, because Martin's world is beautifully crafted and original, let down, again, by bad writing and a terribly constructed plot.
I've mentioned how bad I felt the writing was, so let me elaborate. Martin over-describes her characters as though she's showing them off in a pageant, almost as if she's constantly reminding us how they look. She does this with such detail that it's like a constant reminder of how handsome or beautiful they are. See, Tris! See his white-blond hair! See it a thousand times that he takes his fairness from his mother! See a thousand times more than Jared has a darkness to his face that Tris doesn't! See for the thousandth time Tris' hair dye has worn off, showing off his white-blond beneath. It becomes annoying to the point that you feel constantly patronised.
Martin uses the same descriptions over and over again, describing everything and anything. She uses the same lexis so often that you begin to realise when she does, you actually focus in on the words because she uses them so much. More than a few times Martin described the healer Carina in the exact same way after an encounter: all this demonstrates is an unimaginative writing style and a lacking descriptive vocabulary. It's dully repetitive.
Further to this, Martin overwrites everything to the point that the story takes on an uncomfortable air of melodrama that does not belong. Martin writes in a fashion teenagers are scolded for during Creative Writing class; she constantly overeggs the pudding and by the end, whenever anything dramatic does happen, whenever there is a hint of something original (and not a repeat of past events) happening in this book, it is met with a roll of the eyes and a groan at the sheer and awful melodrama instilled by her dreadful craft.
Martin's characters could have been attractive, interesting and original, if they weren't let down by her writing. It feels as though Martin created the entirety of the Chronicles of the Necromancer as a huge story arc, knowing the details before she began writing The Summoner, and it seems that the first novel was a means of getting her characters from A to B. 600+ pages is an excruciatingly long A-B. Too long.
The Summoner is the most boring fantasy book I have read. The most annoying, too, and certainly the most patronising. Nothing in this book keeps me interested in reading the sequel--The Blood King--and then further in the series after that. It is, in fact, The Sworn that restores a little of my faith in Martin's ability as a storyteller. Whilst it exhibits some of the overwriting that I have a feeling Martin never outgrows, the crafting of The Sworn is far superior and any flaws are only noticeable after having read The Summoner.
Honestly, it's just not good enough. A writer's craft is allowed--expected--to develop throughout a series. However, it's unacceptable for it to take an entire series (especially with books weighing in at 600+ pages) to do so. I can only assume the writing of the remaining Chronicles is as bad as the first, steadily growing in competence, until we reach The Sworn.
Everything that happens in The Summoner can be summed up in precise bullet points, and without the overwriting, the repetition and purely indulgent encounters that serve the single purpose of having Tris take baby steps with his powers, it could have been half the size it is. Then perhaps it would have been a good book, with interesting characters, an intriguing plot and an original world.
Instead, we have a drawn out story with a video-game like course (travel, encounter, rest, and repeat) that not only bores the reader into submission, but infuriates to the point where you feel Martin must be having some kind of private joke with herself given the quality of her prose. It's so awful, I thought the book must predate 1990. It doesn't. To my alarm, I discovered it to belong to 2007. Modern fantasy is no longer entirely filled with 600+ page slogs through a writer's imagined world--and if these exist, the craft of the writer is honed, deliberate and precise, unlike Martin's sloppy workmanship.
I lose count how many times I literally yelled at the audio book, cutting out sentences, toning descriptions down, and generally losing my temper at seeing a perfectly decent story absolutely gutted and slaughtered by terrible, terrible crafting.
At worst it reads like clumsy fan-fiction (and even some fan-fiction is better) and a melodramatic narrative flecked with an attempt at the moral philosophies of life, death and their meanings. Perhaps if someone else had written this book, the review would be very different.
However, I do intend--though in how long, I can't say--continue with this series. Why? Because of The Sworn. The improvement in Martin's craft is tenfold, and having been invited to her world, having glimpsed the originality of the setting, I want to trust her and I want her to improve. The Sworn promises improvement and I can only hope this improvement is realised somewhere between the remaining three books of the series.
A truly awful book that seems to have had the last laugh either way; I will be reading further, and I already bought the books. But thank god they were second-hand.
Unless you have the patience of a saint, or the stubborn curiosity of a dedicated reader-writer, I do not recommend this book: if any of the above sounds as though it might annoy you, then this book will leave you fuming and wishing you'd reached for another book on your "to-read" pile.
Reading this book was not a pleasure. Instead, it was a long trudge through bad writing, melodrama and wasted characters that sort of felt like trudging uphill on a beach, in the rain, whilst molasses pour downwards.