REVIEW: WHITE WIND RISING (GUNPOWDER AND ALCHEMY BOOK 1)
I'm not generally a huge internet creep. If something doesn't show up on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, then I don't see it. I rarely add people on social media sites unless they show up as a recommendation and I generally don't post a ton of stuff online (aside from this blog). But in this particular instance, I happened to find a book by creeping on Goodreads. What happened was I wrote a review of a book by an indie author which then got 'liked' by someone I'd never heard of before. For some reason, I felt so inclined as to click on this person's name and discover that he too was an indie author (in my defense I half suspected that he might be which is why I clicked his name in the first place). Turns out he had several books he self published so I gave one of those a look. My first impression of WHITE WIND RISING (GUNPOWDER AND ALCHEMY BOOK 1) by Dan Davis was that it was a charming fantasy novel with a delightfully crafted cover which was perhaps meant for younger readers. That said, there was something about it that I kind of liked so I put it on my To Read list and determined that I would come back to buy and read it later with the excuse that I was helping out an indie author. Now that later has come around, here is what I thought of this book.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 I think the book has some distinct issues, but overall it was a very enjoyable read for me. I hadn't read something with this much color in a good long while and was very happy that I gave this author's work a shot (hopefully it will make up for my creeping).
This book stars a young boy who calls himself Archer. This isn't his real name, but rather one he's sort of given to himself due to his fondness for - you guessed it - archery. Our dear Archer gets himself into a bind when he daringly approaches a tower owned by a man known only to the people of The Vale as The Alchemist. Archer has never met this man and has been told many times during his young life to stay away from the tower, but in spite of all rational thought, Archer marches up through the snow and demands that The Alchemist take less away from his parents this year who work as Shepherds. It seems that the Alchemist lays claim to large portions to whatever the people of The Vale produce as payment for his protection. The Alchemist hears the boys pleas and whisks him magically away into the tower. He then speaks to Archer in an ominous voice instructing him that Archer is now to serve him as a baker for the rest of his life. It turns out the previous baker is ... no longer working in the tower.
Once imprisoned and enslaved by The Alchemist, Archer decides that he will not stand for this cruelty so he ascends the tower via it's chimney and meets other children that The Alchemist has claimed as his own. There's Keeper, Weaver, and Writer. Together they work to defy their plight and change their fate in a never ending struggle against the odds.
Child characters can be tough to nail down in a way that feels authentic and believable, but Davis manages to deliver on a cast of mostly all children and present each one in a way that I totally believed in. Archer is a good-hearted boy who struggles with his temper and with sometimes coming off as a know-it-all, but always has the best intentions. There's the ever disagreeable Weaver who seems to hide her true emotions under a mask of bitterness and whining. Then there's the blissfully ignorant Keeper who is a bit simple, but also very caring and compassionate. Writer is a graceful and patient girl with a mild temperament. Finally, there is the baby dragon known as Burp who while not 100% a character is still a vibrant enough presence to count as a major contributor to the cast. They are an easy crew to fall in love with and I found that I had no trouble routing for them to succeed.
The story takes place in a place known only as The Vale. It is a region of land which is protected by The Alchemist's dark magic. It keeps things out, but also keeps his people in. The region takes on a distinctively fantastical vibe and feels like what one might expect from a pseudo-medieval European civilization. It's also not a place that we see much of in this novel, though it is teased at the end that we will be seeing more of it in the second book.
Much of the book is set within the rounded walls of the Alchemist's tower. It is a mammoth construct which seems to have very little in the way of windows and absolutely no doors. The Alchemist has the ability to magically teleport himself, others, and objects of any kind in and out of the building. This presents quite the problem for the children trying to escape since it means that they must get to the tower's top before they can get back down to the ground. Along the way, readers are treated to what each of the floors is like. As one might suspect by the naming convention Davis employs, each of the children has a job that they fulfill within the tower and the floor that they live on reflects their positions.
Rounding out the list of locations is a cold, unforgiving forest region which is where the kids are put to the ultimate test.Being that this area is the protective outer region of The Vale, they find that it is almost as enchanted as the tower itself.
Overall, I think the right word for this novel is "charming." The youthful style is very well done and it just has a very fun fantasy feeling. For me the younger voice is what really made this a standout piece for me, despite my being past that level of reader. It feels juvenile, but not overly so. There's a distinct maturity about the way that everything is said and how the story unfolds - unfortunately, this is also where the novel partially comes crashing down, at least within the context of a children's book.
Much of the promotional materials for this (the cover, the product description, and even the title itself) all identify the book as one that is written for a younger audience. The writing style mostly reflects this, but the contents DO NOT, at least not in the later portion of the book. Without spoiling too much of the back half, I feel the need to point out that this story deals with some very heavy, very adult, concepts. There is human modification/breeding/genetic selection which plays a big part and is mentioned in several places. Then there is a twist at the end that is really just too morbid to be suitable for a younger audience. The story has a happyish ending, but the implications of what these children come home to are just a tad too heavy. Then there is a sequence that is just extremely graphic and unreservedly gory. Of course there is also the matter of all these children being victims of kidnapping and enslavement. In this end, this novel felt as about appropriate for children as the Fable video game franchise does (which is to say not at all). Now I love all of the Fable games (yes even 2 and 3) so I personally did not feel upset by the more adult contents of this piece (I enjoyed them in fact), but I WOULD NOT at all recommend this as a book for the audience in which it seems to be intended. Furthermore, I came across numerous copy-editing errors which, while relatively infrequent, did mar the experience overall and also contribute to this not being a suitable read for younger people.
All in all, I really did like WHITE WIND RISING. I don't know if this is Davis's debut novel or not but it is certainly an worthy start to a series (which at the moment appears to be a duology). I think I will probably pick up the second book sometime in the near future and would definitely recommend this one to readers who enjoy a somewhat more childish brand of fantasy that retains a dark maturity. Aside from the mildly poor editing and apparent misunderstanding of who it's audience should be, this book is a solid buy and an enjoyable read.
WHITE WIND RISING can be picked up as an eBook on Amazon.