The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

February 11, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Gail Z. Martin, Reviews)

I first read Gail Z. Marin’s The Summoner last year, I say it was summer, maybe late spring. I remembered enjoying it. I remembered looking forward to the next Chronicles of the Necromancer book. But somewhere between finishing The Summoner, and last weeks release of The Blood King, I forgot what it was about. Was the book that unremarkable, or have I just read too much in the interim (I think it’s actually a little of both). So I decided to give myself a refresher and take it back off the shelf.

Some vague details of the story came back quickly enough once I started reading, but much of it remained lost, and so was like reading it for the first time.

Matris Drayke is the second son to King Bricen, favored by the people of Margolan but content in his minor role. His older, half-brother Jared and his blood mage Foor Arontala raise a coup and murder Bricen and Tris’s mother and sister. With the help of his closest friends, Ban Soterius and Carroway, along with loyal guardsman Tov Harrtuck, and a helpful ghost, Tris manages to flee Shekerishet castle into the surrounding countryside. Vowing to avenge his avenge his family’s murder and free their souls, Matris Drayke must escape the kingdom of Margolan and learn to use his powerful spirit magic to save his father’s kingdom and defeat Arontala before he can release the dreaded Obsidian King. The plan is to head for the neighboring country Dhasson, ruled by King Harrol, Tris’s uncle, and win their aid in deposing Jared. Along the way, they hire mercenary/smuggler Jonmarc Vahanian to guide them through the perilous journey.

Meanwhile, in the country of Isencroft, Princess Kiara Sharsequin is desperate to find a cure for a mysterious illness that has befallen her father, King Donelan (her distant cousin Carina had already been sent to the Sisterhood, but had yet to return with a solution), and to avoid a pre-arranged marriage to Jared of Margolan.

The Summoner is only the first half of the story; the return home is going to wait for the next book.

So, it’s pretty basic story, and it has some basic characters to match. Tris manages to be an ignorant farmboy despite being a prince. He is young and naïve, but he has had his memories locked away, so I he has an excuse. Vahanian is a typical hardnosed nomadic mercenary. A man of worldly experience, he falls into a mentor-like role to the young prince. Vahanian, while not the main character, is the only one who has any measure of depth. Once he is introduced, he takes command of the story. In fact, often times, it feels like this is really Vahanian’s story, and Matris Drayke is simple along for the ride. Tris is likeable enough, but ultimately shallow. There was potential for him to be a much better character, but she had him brush over what should have been some very difficult decisions with little thought. Had she drawn out his internal conflict, it would have made for a more believable character. But still, he is charming.

Beyond those two, everyone else is pretty flat. There’s Kiara – the warrior princess, Soterius – loosely taking the barbarian role for coming from a mountainous people, Harrtuck – the veteran soldier, Carina – the healer, and Carroway – the bard. On the other side is Jared – the despotic king, Arontala – his evil mage and the Obsidian King – the god-like uber-villain. A basic fantasy cast.

The events of the story are driven by an active Goddess, who will randomly appear to bail Tris out of a mess, guide the different characters together, or send a messenger with timely information. It might seem, to some people, a bit of a cop-out. For myself, the approach takes a little bit of the sting off; instead of trying to pass these events off as purely coincidental, she allows for a higher power to direct events, sort of a consolation, an admission of guild, that she couldn’t come up with a better way: if things fall together a little too neatly, well, it’s the will of the Goddess.

The story is all formulaic and forgettable, but Gail Z. Martin makes up for it with the narrative. The language is fairly simple, and plenty of awkward phrasing, but keeps a brisk pace with plenty of action. It’s also clean (as in largely without profanities), and she refrains from overly-gory descriptions in the books many skirmishes. The Summoner is well foreshadowed throughout, but between that and the familiar plot, it does get a little predictable. The book has a lackluster start, but every turned page pulled me deeper into the tale, so that by the end, I was excited at the prospect of beginning The Blood King.

And now for my complaints (which may be minor spoilers). First of all, there were no zombies. Now, if you’re going to call a book The Summoner, have a main character that’s a necromancer, and tell me that he is going to raise armies of the undead (back cover)… well, what does that mean but zombies, right? Nope. Tris is a necromancer, true, but he’s not allowed to raise zombies. That would make him a bad guy. That’s what the Obsidian King did, and why he’s the world’s great villain. His Summoner powers mainly center around ghosts – calling ghosts, seeing ghosts, getting them to help out, giving them their final rest (he can also perform more generic spells). That’s all well enough, but I was hoping for zombies! The “armies of undead” are actually vampires (termed vayash moru in the novel).

Second, as basic as the story was, I thought that she was at least steer away from a few of the genre cliché’s. And it looked good… for a while. There were no ancient prophesies, which I appreciated, but the Goddess’s frequent intervention still gave it a prophetic feel. Not exactly the same, true, but close enough. “You are my chosen warrior, the hope of the world rest in your hands… blah, blah, blah.”

And third, the magic sword. Have we not had enough magic swords already? I thought we were going to get out of this one too. There was no mention of a magic sword… until the last fifty or so pages. Why, Gail, did you have to blow it in the end like that?

One consolation, though, was that Tris, bumbling farmboy prince that he is, doesn’t just instinctively develop his magic. He’s had training. A lot of training. Though his memories have been suppressed so he doesn’t know it. Then, when he’s reacquainted with those memories, he’s still only a mid-level mage for all that. And it is a decent magic system.

Overall Impression: Pretty Good.

Final Thoughts: The Summoner doesn’t break any new ground, but good pacing and likeable characters keep it interesting and engaging. A solid light read.

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City Of Saints And Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

February 1, 2008 at 5:38 pm (Jeff VanderMeer, Reviews)

Jeff VanderMeer - City of Saints and MadmenFollowing up on my books-that-I-want-to-show-off tour, I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. Many others have espoused on the quality of VanderMeer’s work; people more articulate, more credible, and, more importantly, better known than myself. (In fact, I’m daunted by the prospect of reviewing this, as I’m sure to do a poor job.) But I can’t help from piling on additional praise (I’m a slow enough reader as it is, and I can’t pass up the chance to make an entry, no matter how little it actually means).

City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of stories, all set in the hazardous city of Ambergris, that are both whimsical and macabre. The best word I can describe it with is absurd. But delightfully so. Mushrooms and squids spring up in the most imaginative ways, winding their way into each tale. The prose flows smoothly, but I found each story took a little bit of effort before it took hold. VanderMeer exhibits a ready willingness to make fun of both his readers and himself.

The collection starts off with Dradin, In Love, the title being self-explanatory. It follows the young minister Dradin, newcomer to Ambergris, who spots an enchanting woman in the window of a local merchant house. With the help of a dwarf, Dvorak, he attempts to anonymously gain her affections. This story, sadly, didn’t contain the humor that is featured throughout the rest of the book. Or maybe it’s humor was too sophisticated for me to understand.

Next is The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, also self-explanatory. It is a story set up in the manner of a historical pamphlet, written by fictional author Duncan Shriek. This is an account of the founding of Ambergris and events leading up to the beginning of the cities troubles with the mushroom-like Gray Caps and the mysterious event called the Silence, dotted with footnotes that poke fun at impatient readers to beak up the dryness of the story itself.

The Transformation of Martin Lake follows the early career of the famed painter, Martin Lake, and how he became the profound artist fondly remembered through history. It offers commentary on the death of, also famed, composer Voss Bender (whose name springs up in practically every story), and the conflict between the Reds and Greens that ensued because of it. Delightfully gruesome.

The Strange Case of X is funniest piece in this collection. VanderMeer himself shows up, having been transplanted into his own world, and held for psychiatric evaluation.

The rest of the book is classified as an AppendiX, and features stories in support of The Strange Case of X, but which also stand well enough on their own. King Squid is set up as a scientific pamphlet on the most revered of squids, the narrative dripping with venom that the author, Frederick Madnok, has for his fellow squidologists. It features a 38 page bibliography that demands to be read for its commentary on the books included (which feature detailing of the many adventures of the Torture Squid), and for the conclusion of Madnok’s tale. The Hoegbotton Family History is a world-building piece that sits as a primer for The Cage, which follows Richard Hoegbotton’s early days in Ambergris, and his acquisition of a cage left by the Gray Caps, but fails to ever explain itself.  And The Exchange, and odd tale set over an elderly couples dinner.

Low points include The Release of BelacquaThe Man Who Had No Eyes and Learning to Leave the Flesh. While not bad, they don’t compare to books other offerings.

Even The Ambergris Glossary demanded to be read in full. Glossary’s are something I have little trouble ignoring, but that the book didn’t really require a glossary was telling that there was probably more to it. Indeed, there were some memorable entries:

MANZIKERT VII. Death by an extreme miscalculation while flossing. Of his actual reign, the less said the better. See also: Manziism; Manzikert VI; Manzikert VIII.” – page 35 (Glossary)

NUNK, AUTARCH OF. Although a real historical figure, the Autarch is more commonly known to children and adults as the happy fool of Voss Bender’s Nunk poems, which contain such rhymes as ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Was a collector of junk/Which he kept in a trunk/Beside his pet skunk’ and ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Loved to get drunk/And, in the grip of a sudden funk,/Pass out fitfully on his bunk.’ Several critics have complained that a less famous personage would not have been able to get such doggerel published, but the illustrations by Kinsky in the omnibus version amply make up for the simplistic verse. Recently, amongst the few possessions left by Michael Abrasis to the Manzikert Memorial Library, archivists discovered a second set of Nunk poems, decidedly more adult, as this excerpt demonstrates: ‘The Autarch of Nunk/Liked women with spunk/To wiggle and tickle/His enormous pink pickle.’ (Although some historians believe this is a gardening reference.) See also: Abrasis, Michael; Bender, Voss.” – page 41-42 (Glossary)

There are many other comical definitions, but many of them are also simple world-building descriptions.

Overall Impression: Great.

Final Thoughts: City of Saints and Madmen is a delightfully absurd, gruesome and comical collection that demands every page be read, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

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