Tuesday, May 26, 2015

REVIEW: THE STONEGATE SWORD


INTRODUCTION
It is not often that I can describe a full-length book in a single word. Throughout my entire adventure within the Stonegate Sword’s digital pages (I read it as an eBook), the one word that continually resounded in my brain was “charming.” This is simply one of the most enchanting tales that I have read in a very long time. It brings me back to books like FINGAL’S QUEST, RED HUGH PRINCE OF DONEGAL, and THE HITTITE WARRIOR which is one of the highest compliments I can pay to a book. But what is The Stonegate Sword? That, it turns out is a little harder to put into words.

HOW I CAME UPON IT
This one arose out of a somewhat informal review swap. The author introduced himself and let me know he was reading my book, DIGITARUM. He did request that I take a look at his work, but didn't really ask for a review in return at least in so many words. I thought this was a really easy-going way of getting another author to give your own book a quick look-over. I'm sure a lot of people probably wouldn't feel compelled to reciprocate this sort of favor so I hope it has not backfired on Mr. Fox too often. At the time, I was mid-way through AN UNEXPECTED BONDING which is a fairly lengthy work, but I did get around to checking this out eventually and I was very happy that I did!  

HOW I RATED IT

4/5 This is a story that gets a lot of things right and I found myself enchanted by the author's lovely writing style. Where this fell flat fore me mostly has to do with the characters that live in this really cool world. Despite this shortcoming, the core of the cast was lovable enough to keep me invested and the plot and the events in this book are well composed.


CHARACTERS:
The story follows a man named Donald who is something of a typical fantasy hero. He is a lore-man or someone who studies ancient times. He finds himself thrown into a situation where he must become more than a mere scholar of old books. In typical fashion, he trains, gets a little better, eventually messes up, and then sets off to right his wrongs. While his developmental arch might be somewhat formulaic, he is still an immensely enjoyable character to follow and please rest assured that he is no Mary-Sue. No, Donald is a flawed individual who desperately wants to do right and simply isn’t sure of himself a lot of the time. I found myself connecting with him very deeply and genuinely caring about what happened to him. Occasionally the perspective will also switch over to follow Phillip, who is superficially a far more interesting character than Donald, however our limited time with him prevents him from becoming much more than a standout supporting character in a tale where we get to know Donald so intimately.

This brings me to one of the story’s shortcomings – the side characters. Donald is as good of a main character as anyone could hope for, but a lot of the people who accompany him are far less developed. Characters like Samuel, Abel, Robert, Grey John, and some of the characters that are involved early on are big contributors to the plot and offer some of the more distinct personalities to be found along the way. I wouldn’t say that I got to know all their deep secrets or understand them in the same way that I understood Donald, but they were certainly enjoyable travel companions. The fact that not everyone is really explored in depth does feel truer to how such an adventure would go in real life – after all we do not really get to know most of the people we encounter in our lives, but rather a select few. Realistic though this may be, because the adventure follows the familiar arch of a hero as well as lays out the story in the classic grand adventure format, I felt as though I wanted to know more of the people in this world. Given that this is such a lengthy narrative there is a certain desire that I could not help but have to get to know each any every character that the story introduced. While these were not bad characters by any means, I just wanted to know more of them on a deeper level. Had this not been such a long book, I think this shortcoming would have been less pronounced, but because I did spend so much time with it, there was a certain pressure for the novel’s many characters to connect with me in a special way and a number of them just failed to do so.

Adding to my criticism of the cast is the way that the female portion of it comes off in this story. To be clear, the representations are not demeaning, nor are they sexist, they just feel a little weak. There are a variety of female characters that enter into the story, but none of them really contribute very much. A lot of them are damselized a bit which I find to be an overused plot device. Rachel and Lady Lilith offer glimpses at stronger female personalities, but we never really don’t get enough face time to really flesh out their potential. As a male writer, I understand that it can be tough to write a compelling female character that doesn’t fall into some tropes. These women feel like they were pulled straight from the Dark Ages which is a shame, considering that the futuristic setting offered a chance to veer away from that style of character. It’s not high fantasy, so there was no need for an ultra-powerful goddess-like lady, but there really should have been at least one that stood out as a more prominent force within the story. I have nothing against a boys’ adventure, it is just the fact that so many women are introduced and all of them offer so little that bugged me in this case.

WORLD/SETTING
In case it wasn’t clear in my initial synopsis, I love the world that the author constructs for us. It is filled with distinct regions which have some laws, beliefs, and customs unique to them, while others are shared with the rest of this reimagined version of the world. It is also quite smart that the real-world places are renamed since the very dynamic of the world is drastically different than what we are used to and it would have been odd for places to be called by their actual names.
This is, as I mentioned before, a very long story. While I prefer shorter works, I found that I enjoyed just sticking around in this world for a bit. The progression is paced in such a way that I never really felt especially motivated to race toward the end. Instead, I just wanted to casually follow the flow of wherever the narrative wanted to take me and there was something rather magical about that type of a ride. Just like the portrayal of religion, the battle sequences are also depicted in a very grounded way. Those that enjoy the fantasy genre for over the top, epic battles with swords and magic flying all over the place will probably feel a little cheated if they go in expecting this sort of action, but I personally liked the slower type of warfare that is shown in this story. It is drawn out in such a way that I could imagine a real medieval-style battle playing out – with lots of planning and precise military maneuvers that kind of reminded me of classic war movies. This is the type of story that you don’t want to get to the end of – but in a good way.

PLOT/TONE
Not quite Fantasy, not exactly Christian Lit, not precisely a conventional post-apocalypse story, and not actually historical fiction. So what does that leave The Stonegate Sword with? A lot, actually, because it is truly all of these things at once. Imagine a story written like a historical fiction piece, yet set into mankind’s distant future. It’s a sort of post-post-apocalypse where the end of the world as we know it has already come and gone and now society exists in a manner similar to how it did during medieval times. While that might sound like an odd concept, it actually makes a lot of sense in that there is a ton of knowledge simply lost to the world which effectively resets things to a certain extent. What makes this really cool is all of the references to the “ancients” who are really just people that exist in a world like the one we live in today. Artifacts such as guns and ammunition can still be found in short supply and these pieces of “ancient” technology prove to be something of high value in a world that has reverted to Dark Age weaponry.

RELIGION
I mentioned before that this is part Christian Literature. The author is really quite transparent about this fact since every chapter begins with a verse (or verses) from scripture (The Bible) and the subheadings of each chapter are little images of a cross. If this is one particular aspect that does not seem overly thrilling to you, I would strongly urge you to put those concerns aside. For full disclosure’s sake, I happen to be a practicing Catholic, so this element was and enjoyable part of the journey for me. That said, I am also not appreciative of fiction that is more concerned with praising God than it is with telling a good story. As an avid read and writer, my first concern is always going to be whether or not the narrative is compelling (I enjoy stories with messages, but hate messages that attempt to masquerade as stories). God is a presence here, but His role feels very grounded. In fact, the entire representation of faith and spirituality in this world was one of the easiest pieces to connect with for me because of how genuine it is and how well it speaks to how a life of faith actually is in the real world. Not all the characters live lives of faith which allows for some interesting dialogue and between the lines thought on the topic. At the end of the story, you as the reader could very easily believe that God had nothing to do with anything that happened, but if you are a person who believes in a higher power, then you can certainly see how His hand touches the lives of the people within the story. It’s a masterful balancing act that the author performs that is inspiring where it needs to be without ever coming off as preachy or self-righteous.

CONCLUSION
The STONEGATE SWORD was an immensely enjoyable read for me. I had no real expectations going in other than to indulge in a long fantasy adventure and I got exactly that, plus a couple of things I was not expecting. I wasn’t totally satisfied with all of the personalities in the story which did make parts of it drag a little for me since I didn’t feel as invested in the fates of certain characters. Despite this, Donald was an incredibly engaging lead and the high points of the book greatly overshadowed the low ones. There is a religious component that some might be keen to turn their noses up to, but unless you are actively atheistic, I see no reason why this piece would bother you in any way or distract from the wonderful and inventive story being told. It’s not a flawless adventure, but it’s definitely one that will stick with me for a long while.

Available in eBook and Paperback editions on Amazon

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