Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review: Across the Face of the World

Title: Across the Face of the World
Author: Russell Kirkpatrick
Genre: Epic Fantasy


Leith had lost hope that his father would ever return.  Mahnum, a trader, left his wife and sons two years ago to investigate troubling rumors in Bhrudwo, the land of the sinister Undying Man.  When he unveils a coming invasion, Mahnum flees.  He's hotly pursued by four deadly Bhrudwan warriors.

Arriving home to the small village of Loulea, Mahnum has just enough time to reveal the horrific news to his family before the warriors catch up.  They capture Mahnum and his wife, leaving Leith and his brother Hal for dead.

Helped by three villagers--the fat and peacemaking Haufuth, cantankerous old Kurr, and beautiful Stella--Leith and his brother launch a quest to save their parents and warn the king about the coming vengeance of the Undying Man.


Five maps and a glossary attest to Mr. Kirkpatrick's dedication to world-building, by far, the strongest attribute of his book.  Here is a raw and wild land of snow-filled mountains, cascading rapids, and pits reeking with the bodies of the sacrificed.  The cultures are many and varied, and the author treats them with respect, whether the people be allies or enemies.  Religious stories of the Most High and folktales of Qali the snow god pepper the pages.  Not only do they add depth to the world, they are entertaining and exciting reads in and of themselves.

The plot, on the other hand, is like a showcase for the world-building.  For 500 pages it consists of nothing but one chase after another.  While this is a good vehicle for dragging the characters across the beautiful landscape, it makes it very hard to muster enthusiasm for reading.  A chase is only exciting if it's short.  Months and months of the characters almost finding (but not quite) their loved ones soon becomes tedious.

Nor did I find the main protagonist Leith very compelling.  Leith is the very definition of "tow-headed farm boy wanting to be normal but destined for greatness," an overused fantasy trope.  Honestly, Leith doesn't do much, mostly getting dragged around by the more interesting supporting characters.  The Haufuth has a self-effacing leadership style, while Kurr's deliciously cranky.  I wanted to see more of younger brother Hal, who seems to have mystical powers.

Much as I liked the side cast, the third person omniscient point of view prevented me from accessing their innermost thoughts.  Between the distant pov and paragrahs of description, the book was a slow read.  It had its moments, but I'm not sure it's enough for me to continue onto the second book in the series.

Rant (Warning: Spoilers)

I almost didn't finish this book.  After reading the first chapter, I put the book down and contemplated casting it aside.  But I told myself, Get through the first hundred pages at least and then decide.  

Not a great sign.

The first hundred pages interested me enough for me to continue.  Even so, reading proved to be a exercise in discipline.  I forced myself to read chapter after chapter, gritting my teeth on the last fifty pages.  Just get through it, just get through it.

The book did not compel me to read, so I would say, it was not very compelling.  Why not?  Well, I've touched upon it in my review.  But to expound, there are two main factors: a distant point of view and a static plot.

A close point of view, by contrast, can be either first person or third person, but either way I am in the character's head, seeing the world through their eyes.  Across the Face of the World was told in omniscient point of view, which meant that pretty much all the description, lovely as it was, felt like staring at a un-narrated nature footage for a full 15 minutes.  For example, at the start of Chapter 4:

"The morning sun shone bright and clear, supervising a roguish westerly breeze.  The wind caressed the freshly fallen snow, rattled the bones of the tall poplars and ruffled the dark tunics of the mourners gathered around the two open graves.  Around them swirled the glory and the bitterness of life: the heartswelling sound of songbirds, the cheeky glint of the sun on the swift-running brook, the crisp wind on downcast faces, the pungent smell of freshly turned earth; the salty taste of sadness and death on such a morning as this filled the hearts of the people grouped together at the graveside...."

...And it goes on for another half paragraph.

Who actually sees the sun and feels the wind and hears the birds?  People, generic people.  There's no intimacy, no individuality--all are equally sad.  Yet at any given funeral, one person might be weeping over the memory of the departed, another might assume a pose of reverence while his mind wanders to lunch, someone else might be numbed with shock.  We don't get any of this, so we lose the actual experience of being the mourners at the funeral.  Instead, we're regulated to spectators.

Now for the plot.  I think that all stories need at least one strong central question to compel the reader forward all the way to the end.  In a mystery, it might be "Who is the murderer?" and "How did they commit the crime?"  In a romance, it might be "Will the lovers be together at the end?" and "How will they overcome the obstacles that separate them?"

In this book, after Mahnum gets kidnapped, the central question became, "How will his sons and a ragtag bunch of villagers defeat four trained warriors to rescue him?"  Also, "How will rescuing him play a larger role in preventing the Undying Man from conquering the world?"  So far so good.

The thing is, the central questions are not allowed to sit idly by on the sidelines.  The story must continue to address them.  That's why, in the mystery, clues must be unearthed.  In romance, the lovers must struggle through problem after problem.  Above all, progress must be made, even if it is of the "two steps forward, one step back" variety.

In Across the Face of the World, the ragtag bunch of heroes chase Mahnum, admire the scenery, meet new people, hear a tale, get into a fight, and chase Mahnum some more.  It gets rather repetitive.  But the heroes don't actually develop any skills for defeating the Bhrudwan warriors.  Those same skills might also help develop the second question, how to defeat the Undying Man.

What's doubly frustrating is that almost as soon as the heroes start the quest, a holy man prophesies, "As you leave this little valley, you'll be leavin' the realm you know, [...] the realm of the flesh, and you'll be drawn into the Realm of Fire. [...]  Miracles there are in the Realm of Fire, and illusion, and dreams, and prophecy to bind and to loose, and dark magic.  [...]  I foresee that the Most High will be trainin' you in the way of the Fiery Realm."

And yet, no one has been trained, with the exception of Hal, who might have already had the power to begin with.  It's not that the characters aren't subjected to prophets and prophecies and miracles, they simply don't take anything away from the experience.  Leith, for example, actually sees brother Hal swathed in an outline of blue fire, with shadowy wings on his back, speaking words as though he were a messenger of God.  So what does Leith do?  He doesn't.  He doesn't confront Leith, he doesn't tell anyone, and he doesn't reflect deeply on what he's seen.

Anyway, shortly after (not) realizing that Hal is a prophet, Leith and co finally get to rescue Mahnum, and with some teamwork, ingenuity, and Hal conveniently blocking the Bhrudwan warriors' magic, Mahnum is rescued, and so the first central question is answered... 150 pages before the book ends.

So now what?  Well, ideally, the heroes should start to work on the second question, which is how to save their land from the wrath of the Undying Man.  But immediately after the fight, Leith gets himself captured by a group of bandits.  And so the pattern continues: chase, meet people, hear a tale, fight, and chase again.

And this why I was gritting my teeth for the last 50 pages.  One question had been answered and I knew the second one wouldn't be addressed.

This all sounds like a harsh critique.  But really, I'm just trying to figure out why I had trouble reading the book.  And in the end, maybe the question shouldn't just be, "Why was it so hard for me to read?" but also, "Why did I choose to finish?"

I chose to keep reading because I did care about the characters, because in the rare moments that Mr. Kirkpatrick let us into their heads, I liked what I saw.  I kept reading, because I wanted to know what would happen to Mahnum, if he'd be rescued, and how.   I kept reading because I loved experiencing Leith forced to spend a night on the ice huddled for warmth with a girl he loves who doesn't love him back; cascading down rapids with jolly fur traders; standing drugged above a crack in the earth about to be shoved off and sacrificed to Mother Earth.

And I chose to keep reading, because I knew that Mr. Kirkpatrick's strengths were my weakness: setting and world-building and description.  I was inspired by the originally-formed world, and I wondered if I could ever hope to master the depth and richness.  So I read, hoping to learn and be inspired.

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