Book: The Last Elf of Lanis
Series: Wealdland Stories, Book 1
Author: K. J. Hargan
Genres: fantasy, high fantasy, epic fantasy, adventure
Synopsis (from Amazon book page):
Wealdland is being overrun by troops of vicious garonds, led by the 900 year old, evil lord of magic, Deifol Hroth. Humanity is on the brink of extinction.
Iounelle, last of the elves, embarks on a dark journey of revenge for the eradication of her race by the garond army.
One of the humans she rescues from the small village of Bittel knows how to find the sword of power, the Mattear Gram, the edge in the coming battle.
Now if they can only stay alive long enough to get it.
Notes of Interest:
This book feels like a cross between classic “Tolkienesque” fantasy and a Dungeons and Dragons campaign — to the point where even though the text said “garonds”, I was thinking “goblins”. The physical descriptions of the garonds are nothing like the standards fantasy goblin, but their behavior and intellect are similar. Everything about the elven and human races is pretty standard. That is not to say their histories and cultures aren’t unique. They just have that classic feel to them.
I got the impression that this story was started as an rpg campaign or a map, and that the events were drafted as part of a world-building activity, which then gave way to characters. I don’t know for certain what order or method the author used for writing this novel, but I usually prefer character-driven stories that fill in the plot and world around them. The fact that these are opposing methods of storytelling did affect how I received the story. But I tried to keep that bias in mind while reading and for this review.
What could have made it better for me:
The weakest aspect of this novel is its attention to grammar and composition mechanics. For composition, perhaps the biggest immersion-breaker for me was the frequent point-of-view switches. It was meant to be written in third person omniscient, but without any warning the narrative would jump into different characters’ heads. Most of my notes while reading comprised of disruptive pov switches. There should be noticeable breaks between paragraphs when switching from one character’s thoughts to another’s. Or, the author should pick one person and stick to that character’s pov, meaning the reader should not be able to “hear” another character’s thoughts.
The second largest number of notes I highlighted were miscellaneous grammar issues. I found a number of typos, use of multiple end punctuation marks (-?!), improper capitalization with dialog tags, etc. In other words, it needed better editing … because that, too, was an immersion breaker.
There are several somewhat important characters that either have no names or their names were not given until the end. So, I was reading about “the elf”, “the Archer”, and “the Mage” but had no idea who they are. No names, basic backgrounds, mind on the mission … At one point, the elf is falling in love with the Archer … and yet she doesn’t even know his name. It just struck me as rather unrealistic in terms relationship basics. Was this my “character-driven” bias at play? Or is this a genuine problem? After giving it some thought, I’ve decided it’s a problem in this case, because had this been a short story, I don’t think it would have bothered me. For a lengthy work, most readers tend to want to invest in the characters. But the lack of development depth in these protagonists made them still feel like strangers far beyond the first few chapters. There were several places where the characters struck me as emotionally dry for this same reason.
Some of the statements made or situations simply struck me as unrealistic (like falling in love with someone when you don’t even know his name, even after traveling together and saving each others’ lives). One case is where a character was taken prisoner for seven days of hard labor, and upon seeing him for the first time after that, his mother noted that he suddenly went from looking like a boy to looking like a man because of how the hard labor has shaped his body. In reality, seven days of hard labor barely makes a noticeable dent in most physiques. Puberty would have been a more credible factor for making a boy look suddenly older. Another instance was when one character was teaching another, and the student went from not being able to read to learning subjects like economics, trade, and government. Things like this are tropes for movies and books that don’t have a lot of time to show the passage of time (as is love at first sight plots), but instant improvement coupled with one-dimensional characters wasn’t a convincing combination for me.
Lastly, because of the emphasis on strategy to accomplish the quests, rather than character development, this book was more tell than show. I almost lost interest several times because there was very little dialog in between long passages about the characters travels and battles. Had there been more show in between the tell, that might have helped the characters feel more like people than chess pieces.
What I liked about it:
In spite of everything I said in the previous paragraph, believe it or not I do like this book. Its strengths were good strengths that made the weaknesses tolerable.
The descriptions were imaginative, vivid, and well-written. The environmental atmosphere had a good sense of place, from horse hides being slick with rain to descriptions of the desiccated remains of what might have been a cow. So the setting had a “big screen” or “Middle Earth” feel to it. The passages where magic was used caught my interest for the same reason. Consider this passage from Wynnfrith’s vision.
Wynnfrith felt her spirit move up out of her body. She flew high above the earth. Down below the whole world unrolled like a map. But it rolled and bulged. Other worlds, other lives, other times layered over her vision.
The rain began, and it was hard.
Wynnfrith felt her mind expand, families grew and died by the thousands before her. Cities were built and leveled. Trees grew from tiny seedlings and fell with old age in a blink. It was all a whirlwind of time and life. Wynnfrith wanted to scream, but knew she had to hold fast or the vision would take her sanity entirely.
There was one character that had more personality than any of the others: Frea. Frea’s abduction by the garonds is perhaps the most amusing of all the scenes in the book and felt somewhat reminiscent of the Hobbit scene in which Frodo is trying to free his friends from the trolls. Frea is a young girl and names her captors by their ugly or weird features (like Boil, Drool, and Eyebrow) as they travel together. Another uniquely Frea trait is how she amuses herself when bored during her captivity, talking to herself as if writing about her own adventures. Several times she starts her narrative with passages like, “Once upon a time, there was a young girl who was trapped in the midst of the garond army.” Yet each time her situation changes, she “rewrites” her story to fit the new circumstances. This approach to a character’s narrative felt different from the others — fresher and more personal. I found myself wishing the other characters had been done in a similar fashion. My only complaint about Freya’s passages is that there was nothing to set her inner dialog apart from her narrative. Her inner dialog should have been italicized as direct thoughts the same way direct quotes are handled. (Example: Frea thought her captors were stupid. … vs. … Once upon a time, the girl decided her captors were stupid, Frea thought to herself.) Either way, I enjoyed seeing her attempt to tell the “story” of her own captivity. Such passages were my favourite part of the book. I thought her voice was unique, personal, and entertaining.
I would have preferred to see Frea rescue herself, rather than being rescued by one of the male characters as a love interest, but the female characters in this tale were not necessarily dependent weaklings. I would call them strong supporting characters.
The plots of the various characters doing simultaneous quests that eventually come back together as one are well-coordinated. I like the way the mystery builds around the movement of the second moon. And while the overall structure of the story seems predictable to the genre, there are a few minor plot surprises in how the individual quests turned out.
But what this book excelled at was military campaigns. Whether it was large battles being staged across the map, unusual fighting formations in different races being explained, or the organization of the factions or various characters staying single-minded on their tasks, the strategies introduced were easy to follow and interesting. And that is something I usually find very boring, but I took several notes on well-done battle scenes.
The special weapon created in the end sounds quite stunning, too.
The mechanical issues and lack of character depth in this book made it a bit of a labor for me, but I acknowledge that I prefer character-driven stories. It was high on action, adventure, environment, and strategy, which I enjoyed. It’s a large-scale fantasy tale with simple good vs. evil objectives. I probably won’t buy the second book in the series because I do prefer a little more “umpf” in character design, like Frea; but I enjoyed this first book in the series for what it was worth in terms of giving me a bird’s-eye view of a good rpg-style quest for a group of characters to accomplish.