Friday, April 20, 2007

A Review: The Return of the Guardian-King by Karen Hancock

When reviewing a book that is part of a series in which one of the books has won a Christy award raises expectations for a good read, even a superior read. Unfortunately, this book failed to meet that expectation for me. Some aspects were in part a matter of taste. Some of the writing was a bit wordy for my tastes and moved more slowly getting to the heart of the story than I like. But those are personal issues. Even once I swept them aside, I found the book to be a fairly modest example of the classic Sword and Sorcery romance.

The story is a common one in fantasy literature. A king is separated from his Kingdom and is on a quest to return to it and his rightful place. In this case King Abramm, the Guardian-King appeared to have been executed, but in reality he was rescued at the last minute. He disguises himself as Alaric a supporter of the King who is on his way to help take back the kingdom for the Kings family in exile. Meanwhile his wife, like Odysseus's Penelope, fends off suitors while awaiting the return of her husband whom everyone else says is dead.

You have plenty of stock characters in this story. The heroic king in exile. The wise old spiritual adviser. The wife who stubbornly refuses to give up hope. The handsome suitor wooing the queen.

The problem is that many, if not most of them, never quite make it beyond their traditional stereotype. I have the feeling I am reading a Prince Valiant cartoon instead of a piece of literature. Certainly, that can be a pleasant diversion in the short term, but not over the extent of a 300 page book.

Likewise, this book shares some of the problems found in many Sword and Sorcery books which take place in an alternate fantasy world. First, we have a world which is essentially like ours just with the addition of a few fantastic creatures like shape-shifting wolves and dragons and the ability of some to manipulate "the light" which apparently emanates from Eidon, the divinity of this world. It is apparently anaologous with the Holy Spirit with the exception of being impersonal and capable of manipulation by human beings. I hope that is not the intent of the author, because there are some serious theological consequences to such a teaching.

Nevertheless, it is basically a low-tech, medieval type of setting with some magical elements thrown in. The thing about that is that, like many fantasy novels, the alternate world is not quite different enough to really let you know it's not just 10th century England with dragons added. However, even that would be acceptable except for the internal inconsistencies and anachronisms.

At one point the society is presented as being basically patriarchal with women being totally dominated by men. Yet, in another scene a woman is ready to "give" her husband a divorce. In a patriarchal culture of the sort established initially the man would be the one to grant divorces and the woman would have no say in the matter.

In another scene we have someone putting on his spectacles without any sense of wonder. It takes a fairly sophisticated level of technology to produce something that common, and not really in keeping with the level of technology depicted in the book. It doesn't mean this person couldn't have found some crystal and shaped it himself or an artisan did it for him, but it would be an uncommon marvel.

Then there is the patois of the "lower class" using "ye" for "you," but not in keeping with the actual meaning of ye as the nominative plural.

I know what you are thinking. This is all nitpicking. Even Shakespeare had a clock in ancient Rome. But he did have compelling characters, a strong storyline and a great funeral oration. The problem is that these inconsistencies and anachronisms continue to build up within the context of a fairly predictable, and slow moving storyline, played out by rather stock characters.

Perhaps, some of this would be more readable if I had read the other books in the series. I would then know some of the background. However, a book should be able to stand on its own merits as an individual work of art. And if there is material in the previous volumes necessary to the enjoyment of the present volume, then a prologue bringing the reader up to date would be advisable.

For those who have read the previous books, I suspect this would be an adequate addition to the set. However, I would not advise anyone to start with this book. I am truly sorry my expectations were not fulfilled.

Read what other bloggers are saying about this book:

Nissa Annakindt
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Grace Bridges
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
April Erwin
Kameron M. Franklin
Linda Gilmore
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Christopher Hopper
Heather R. Hunt
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Shannon McNear
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Tsaba House Authors
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Daniel I. Weaver

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