Book Review: Waiting Game

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Book: Waiting Game
Series: Chronicles of Covent
Author: J.L. Ficks and J.E. Dugue
Genres: fantasy, action, adventure

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Doljinaar. Kingdom of might and stone. One name is whispered upon the lips of every man, woman or child old enough to know fear. An assassin lives among them. A foreigner born of a far off dark land and yet lies as close as their shadows. An assassin that goes by the name of Shade…

It has been many long years since Shade left the black forests of his people, the Dark Elves, where he was trained among the ranks of the Unseen. He has grown rich and powerful in the world of men, feeding off mankind’s compulsion for spilling its own blood. His name has become like a cold wind slipping in through the night, but even he tires of his own legend and yearns for a challenge…

And so when Shade was offered a job that could mean his own downfall, he did not hesitate to accept. He would strike at the crimelord of the Kurn underground. In one bold stroke he would make himself an enemy of his own dark underworld. Has he finally found a worthy enemy or will this contract be his last?”

Notes of Interest:

I bought this book because I was on a quest for books about dark elves and this popped up in my search. Dark elves originated in Norse mythology and traveled down into Germanic and English lore, but most people today are more familiar with their modern cousins from fantasy role-playing games and world-setting novels. Dungeons and Dragons, in particular, has inspired a large number of other dark elf fantasy races, cultures, settings, etc. As a fan of dark elves, they fall into a category of interest where I’m always curious to see how similar or how different writers and artists can design them.

What could have made it better for me:

This book needs better editing. Too many spelling and grammar issues distracted me from the story. That’s the easy part to critique. After that, I have to say this is one of those books where I had a hard time deciding whether it was poorly written or just not my cup of tea.

I’ve explained in previous blog reviews how I usually try to keep my own biases in mind when reviewing something, because poor editing, poor structure, poor characters, etc. qualifies as bad writing. But stories about cowboys, for example, usually don’t appeal to me because I’ve never been a fan of westerns. I believe readers need to be aware of their own biases when reviewing because there is nothing an author can do to fix bias. Likewise, just because I don’t like westerns doesn’t mean someone else can’t. What bores me might excite someone else. So, I usually “give back” a star rating if I didn’t enjoy something, but think it bias brought it down for whatever reason.

Having said that, there were times when environment details felt off-topic. I remember one scene where the main character is arriving in a city and walking through a crowd, but it felt like more attention was being paid to a particular conversation between passers-by than the assassin, so my attention drifted. I found myself forgetting about the main character and wondering where the conversation was leading. In the end I think it was just meant to demonstrate how people quake at the sight of a dark elf, but that is demonstrated frequently in this book, which brought up some realism issues for me.

Assassins don’t normally like to be visible or draw attention to themselves … for a number of reasons, if for nothing but their prey could run. Yet everywhere this assassin went, people knew his name or knew his reputation or knew enough to be very afraid of dark elves, even though he was far from his homeland. If he is that well-known and that terrifying, so as to stand out in a crowd everywhere he goes, how does he do his job? The hype surrounding this character made him less credible in my eyes. And the fact that he considered himself to be just as terrifying as everyone else perceives him made him feel one-dimensional. Shade is supposed to be a bad-ass assassin, but it seems that is all that he is. No other dimensions of personality are shown, except for one scene where he was afraid while trying to fight his way through some undead. His dialog was a bit over the top — the “I will be your worst nightmare” kind of protagonist. But this is where my personal bias might have influenced my assessment. I just don’t like characters like that. I don’t think readers have to like the characters they’re reading about; the story belongs to the character, regardless of whether readers like him or not. Stories should never be about making character likable. However, I tend to have a hard time relating to protagonists who truly believe they are invincible, especially when they are static. The villain and henchmen had even less attention to deeper development — a smarmy crime lord and his muscle-for-brains thugs.

Lastly, I felt the plot was rather one-dimensional, too. It has good structure in terms of sticking to an outline and going from point A to point B to accomplish the mission. But that’s all there is, except for a few flashbacks and world building explanations. So, this book is about the main character going from Place A, where he has a fight, to Place B, where he has a fight, to Place C, where he has a fight, and so on, until he reaches the big boss battle and they trade insults and then they have the final fight. But even then, the final battle is very underplayed after all that led up to it about the assassin wanting a challenge. His final strategy was skipped over and whipped out as a surprise, rather than followed, even though the reader follows him every step of the journey up to that point.

This fantasy novel felt more like an action movie with heavily choreographed fight scenes. Or I could see this story being done as a comic because of its straightforward objective and acrobatics. But I expect more depth from a novel. To be fair, this might be my love of complexity coming through. There’s nothing wrong with simple, straightforward stories and over-the-top martial arts, as long as they fit the overall theme of the story. But, personally, I have to have more than a novel about fights. Fights are exciting elements to include in adventure stories, but if that’s all the story is, to me, it reads more like a quest journal from a role-playing game. And for fight scenes in novels, the story-telling should match the pace of the battle — short, explosive, and to-the-point, like the action itself. If a fight takes an entire chapter to describe it loses my interest … and perhaps credibility.

What I liked about it:

I mentioned above that the plot was not flawed. It doesn’t have any gaping holes that didn’t make sense, or anything like that. Which means it was easy to follow and understand — a quick read.

My favourite part was probably the flashbacks because they went deeper than the main plot and had more “humanity” in them. Even in fantasy and sci-fi, it’s the “humanity” of the characters (even alien creatures) that readers latch on to in attempts to relate. In the flashbacks we see some of the training this assassin went through, and it’s a chance to see how that harshness contributed to his cold, hard personality. (And I realize assassins generally are stone-cold loners, but interesting characters are more than that, regardless of their professions … sometimes even because of their professions.) I also liked the flashbacks because I liked the glimpse into dark elf society. And I enjoyed the descriptions and world-building aspects regarding the dark forests where they originate. Since that is one of the interests that led me to the book in the first place. Those parts of the book held my interest more than others. The flashbacks also gave context for the main character more so than the rest of the story. This story doesn’t have any secondary characters as foils to the main character. His journey is mostly solitary from beginning to end. But in the flashbacks, you see his relations to his teacher, his fellow classmates, his traditions, etc. This is where there is more substance beyond a string of fights on the road to his goal.

The comedic inserts were sometimes funny, but sometimes over the top. The stupidity of the henchmen felt out of place if the king of thieves was to be taken seriously. I liked the faun, however. He felt more original and appropriate to the overall atmosphere than the two thugs that kept failing at their duties.

The book has nice illustrations. Most novels don’t offer such visuals, so that’s a bit of a treat.

Recommendation:

I recommend this book for a quick read if you really enjoy action. The setting makes it fantasy. The plot makes it adventure. But the bulk of the text is about action. How much of a novel should be devoted to action is perhaps a personal preference.

There were times when this novel read more like a comic or role-play game journal, so I had a hard time deciding whether I was supposed to take it seriously or not, off and on. I think my expectations were set on something more like a Forgotten Realms novel, and that is not what the authors were trying to accomplish here. The back matter of the novel explains the authors’ marketing strategy.

“Most authors tell their best stories first. Readers are left increasingly disappointed as prequels and spinoff tales never again reach that full epic scale and depth found in the original trilogy or saga.” So they designed this book as something small that leads up to something epic. They refer to The Hobbit laying the foundation for Lord of the Rings by example, asking readers to imagine a book for Gandalf, a book for Strider, and so on.

The problem with this kind of strategy is that the first book in a series always bears the burden of having to hook enough interest to carry the rest of the series. The Hobbit was an excellent novel with depth, well-defined characters, and a stand-alone plot. It didn’t need Lord of the Rings to be successful. Had The Hobbit been lower quality, people might never have been interested in reading what came after it. Even in modern “arc” series that do depend on the books that follow, the first book must be a “best” effort, or no one will be interested in what follows.

So I feel like the “save the best for last” marketing strategy worked against this book. If I had started with the “best” book in the series, I might have been interested enough to follow additional individual character stories on the side. That’s how fandoms work. As it is, there is not enough here to interest me in seeing more of this character in a bigger world or more complex plot.

I’m going to rate this one “not my cup of tea” with a note that it definitely needs better editing, but give back one star in case there are other readers out there who think they might enjoy it.

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