Antioch by William Harlan

The following is a book review of Antioch by William Harlan. Below the review is a criticism of the book, which I hope can help all first-time authors develop their talents. You can learn more about the series and read other reviews at http://www.williameharlan.com, as well as see his magnificent illustrations. You may also listen to the audiobook version on the same site. Click here to like his series on Facebook.

 

AntiochTwo worlds separated by an uncrossable ocean meet each other in the midst of a zombie apocalypse: this is the premise behind William Harlan’s novel Antioch, which is Part One of his series The Circle.

One world consists of a primitive medieval society, built around the authority of the church (a group of knights gifted with healing powers), and a distant northern king. The second is the more advanced world, either Victorian or twentieth-century, and is the home that a group of gun-totting, slang-speaking sailors have left behind, in the wake of the Fall.

Both societies have lost loved ones to the plague that is turning ordinary folk into deadly undead killers: bauran, also known as “devils.” Their meeting results in the breaking apart of the authority structures that bind Antioch, the largest city in a medieval wasteland.

Michael and John are two knights of the church who begin questioning their vows in the wake of the apocalypse. They are capable of summoning riin, a mysterious power that can heal wounds and make them the strongest warriors in their land. Riin bears some resemblance to the Force of the Jedi knights in Star Wars, but Harlan gives it a twist…

The Captain, Biggs, Andalynn, Ditch, and Drake are among the sailors who survived the deadly crossing of the ocean, only to arrive in the ghost town of Meroe, which has been devastated by zombies. They carry the big guns and strike up a friendship with the locals of Antioch. Except for Drake, they are much older than they appear—while in their sixties, they appear to be in their thirties. A mysterious figure named Ezekiel once saved them from the zombies, using riin to restore their youth and leaving behind only a single message:

Armageddon is arrived.

Break your silence.

Open the library.

The survival of both worlds hangs in the balance. The violence in the novel may be gruesome (what else to expect from a zombie apocalypse?), but the foul language is kept to a minimum. The concept of this book will appeal to any lover of zombie apocalypse movies or fiction, and to post-apocalyptic aficionados in general.

 

William Harlan is the author of Antioch.
William Harlan is the author of Antioch.

Congratulations to William Harlan for finishing his first self-published novel! Having written a novel myself, I am aware of the challenges that a first novel can bring, and the path of discovery the author inevitably journeys on in its process.

Harlan openly posts reviews that both criticize his novel on his novels, and those that praise it. This is a humble gesture that I respect. I could make a list of faults that I found with this novel, but instead of striking his novel over the head with a hammer, I will examine the work for what it is—a work written by a developing author. Hopefully, his future novels will overcome the setbacks of the first. All authors must evolve, and no one is more aware of this than myself, an unpublished novelist. For making the bold move of self-publishing his work, I can only praise William Harlan.

To a certain extent, my criticisms are biased towards the printed word–you might find that hearing the audiobook read by the author is smoother than reading the novel.

Now I invite all first-time novelists to look over my shoulder as I briefly examine his novel, to hopefully learn something for yourselves.

My first criticism would be the development of his characters. At the beginning, Michael has little characterization, though we see he is an accomplished warrior with vows he holds dear. About a third of the way through, Harlan starts exploring the relationships of his characters, which is good. They appear more fleshed out as the book continues. One scene, a flashback, presents Drake’s point of view quite well. However, the book does open weakly with characterization, and I would stress that what readers remember most about a book after setting it down are not action scenes, exquisite descriptions, or even world building, but characters.

An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan
An illustration for a chapter of Antioch by William Harlan.

The result of Harlan’s exploration of character is that more than half the book, it seems, is taken up with the characters’ boisterous camaraderie as they laugh at each other and crack jokes in a medieval restaurant. The historical inaccuracy of such a location aside (perhaps Harlan meant an inn?), the end result may be that character relationships are deeper, but it is at the expense of the story. While the opening of the novel promises a story of kick-ass zombie slaying and an attempt to find a cure for the disease, most of the novel is composed of talking-head scenes where nothing much happens.

The book is best when dialogue, setting, and characterization are balanced evenly in a scene, though many scenes are dialogue heavy and disembodied in the setting. Especially for fantasy authors, setting is important.

Furthermore, the medieval society seemed to lack many of the defining constraints that defined it, such as the aristocracy and the vassalage system, among other things. Perhaps Antioch is closer to a Renaissance city state? Also, the Continent has a vastly different history from our own world, but the customs are essentially the same as in the Unite States today, which I found to be unlikely. The book would have benefited from more setting details, and more world building.

DrakeAnother rookie mistake is the author left me, as a reader, wondering why things were happening. Most scenes, especially at the beginning, but also in the middle and end, left me disoriented. This is because things about the world are simply not explained, or if they are, they should be explained sooner. While it is true that an author should not dump massive piles of exposition in the middle of a scene, Harlan seems to take that rule too literally. It is okay to explain backstory and world-building details a little bit, otherwise the context is lost on the reader. Doing it cleverly, sneaking it in through scene tension, is the best way to do this. It happens that first time authors may have a whole world plotted out in their head—I certainly struggle with that myself—but if it does not appear on the page, it does not transfer to the reader’s head. And if that does not happen, the writer has not done his telepathic job.

By page 19, I did not know anything about the characters or context, other than that Michael kicks zombie butt. But if that is so, why should I care? We need to bond to Michael right off the top, in the first paragraph, or even the very first sentence. The first sentence should announce a question to be answered, or a hint at a problem, and if possible the stakes of that for character. And we need context to follow that introduction.

In terms of style, Harlan has potential to be a good prose writer—many of his sentences are pithy, short, effective. However, it would be best if he stayed away from writing the Southern accents into the sailors’ dialogue, which distracted from what they were actually saying to each other. He can probably hint at the accent through word choice and sentence structure instead of cutting off vowels with apostrophes. (Also, it would be fun for the medieval people to speak more formally, to contrast better with the sailors.) There were also some common grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences, perhaps made awkward due to an attempt to antiquate the language. Worse was the repeated letters in dramatic, emotional dialogue (“Noooo!”) which reduced moments of deep emotion into bathos—emotion that fails because it tries too hard. The result of the accents and clumsy, unprofessional-looking prose is that I could not take the novel seriously. This would be fine if Harlan was writing a comedy, but given the post-apocalyptic scenario, I would doubt this was his intent. Mind you, this problem disappears slightly in the audiobook, since there is no physical page to frown at.

Devil's MArkFinally, I would say his plot needs tweaking and more structure. The ending does not end with an obvious success or failure, but more or less in the middle of things. While it is in the middle, in a way, of the series, after reading nearly 200 pages of buildup, I was expecting a showdown that had some kind of closure to it—not a total defeat of evil, but a definite change of circumstances for the protagonists. Writing Excuses, a fantasy/science fiction writing podcast, talks about a seven-point story structure system that I find helpful and clarifying.

I write these criticisms to aid Harlan in his writing career, and I hope he will take them to heart, and learn the art of the writer. These criticisms may also aid any other first-time authors out there, whether you are published or not. Read some well-written fiction to learn from the greats, develop your personal style, and consult Stephan King’s On Writing and Strunk &White’s The Elements of Style. You might also want to consult How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, if that is your genre, and Writer’s Digest Write Great Fiction Series, especially Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. The only danger is one of my own ongoing struggles: you might read more about writing fiction than you actually write, so keep practicing and practicing!

Note: While it is a slight departure for The Vinciolo Journal to review a self-published author’s work, I hope the review above justifies my choice. I generally do not accept self-published works, but will handle queries, should they arise, on a case-by-case basis.

A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch
A map of the post-Apocalyptic setting of Antioch.
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The Fionavar Tapestry Book III: The Darkest Road

The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay

In The Darkest Road, Kim makes the acquaintance of a survivor of Eridu, a land that has been annihilated by a poison rain caused by cauldron of Kath Meigol. She then quests to liberate the Paraiko, a primeval race of giants, from suffocation in their caves at the hands of svart alfar. Although pacifists, Kim convinces even the Paraiko play their part in the war to come.

 

And war is coming. Aileron the High King marches his army north to join the Dalrei and lios alfar, while Shalhassan of Cathal holds the rear guard. The dwarves, who betrayed Fionavar in helping to release Rakoth from his thousand-year bondage, must also be dealt with. Matt Sören, once source to Loren Silvercloak, must also fulfill his destiny to become king, replacing the corrupt King Kaen, and bring the army of the dwarves back to the forces of Light.

 

In the background, there are two ancient love triangles. When Arthur brings back Lancelot du Lac from his sleep in Caer Sedat, Jennifer, who is Guinevere, must deal with the two men whom she has loved. Also, the pain of the suicide of Lisen, a deiena who loved the first mage Amairgen Whitebranch, resurfaces after a thousand years. When Amairgen was lost at sea in a storm, Lisen threw herself from a tower and into the sea, causing the grief of Galadan, who loved her, but turning him bitter and nihilistic over the years, as he served as Rakoth’s lieutenant.

 

And in the midst of all the passion, grief, and sacrifice, Darien must decide finally on his allegiance. As a free radical who Rakoth did not wish to conceive, Darien has the chance to choose whether to save or destroy the world. He walks a lonely, dark road to the ziggurat of Starkadh, Rakoth’s dark fortress at the base of Mount Rangat, where he will have a final encounter.

 

Kay evades your expectations in this final book, and even when something is about to go so perfectly right for the protagonists, there is usually some tragedy or unanticipated twist that ruins it, and then you have to keep reading. There is a final physical clash of armies, but the emphasis is far more on how the destinies of the different characters are being fulfilled, one after an other on that battlefield—and how some destinies are reversed.

 

There are layers and layers to The Darkest Road, and the ending took me a little by surprise. I had a few spoilers about the plot before I began to read it, but the spoilers amounted to nothing, since the novel kept my interest despite them.

 

In conclusion, The Fionavar Tapestry is an excellent work to be rediscovered, and it restored my faith in the epic fantasy, which had been smashed while reading the formulaic doggerel of certain other fantasy novelists. There arrives a point where fantasy stops being fantasy, in the most important sense of the word, even if there are dragons and dwarves and elves in it. The Fionavar Tapestry, however, is a brightly woven epic fantasy, which renews not only the genre from me, but actually does, in a way, reshape my perception of the world.

 

 

Photo Credits:

 

The Darkest Road Cover: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-darkest-road-guy-gavriel-kay/1007649763?ean=9780451458339

The Fionavar Tapestry Book 2: The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

When The Wandering Fire opens, Rakoth Maugrim is unchained and ready for a slow vengeance, and the five Torontonians have restlessly settled into their old lives. The opening line, “Winter is coming,” echoes the moody refrain of the book, and might remind readers of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Indeed, an unnatural winter has come to Fionavar, being reflected in our world in the form of a slightly unseasonal snow storm.

The book consists essentially about how the five Toronto students go about solving the problem of the winter, which threatens to cause mass starvation in Brennin and the rest of the country, before the war against the Dark even begins. But first, the protagonists have to reach Fionavar.

Kim, who has a Seer’s power even in our world, travels to Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor to summon an ancient king, who she dreamed would be able to help them during the war in Fionavar. Her magic ring, the Baelrath, or Warstone, is sacred to the war goddesses Macha and Nemain, and enables her to summon King Arthur Pendragon, known as the Warrior and Childslayer, from the grave.

Meanwhile, Jennifer is recovering from giving birth to the child of Rakoth Maugrim, who captured and raped her. She entrusts the child, named Darien, to a foster mother, hoping that the child will tip the scales in favour of Light, should the child choose to follow it. Darien is a free radical, who might equally go to serve his father Rakoth or fight for the Light, though he is now but a child.

Returning the group, through the power of her ring, to Fionavar, Kim follows her path as Seer to marshal the forces of Light. After a night hunting wolves before the feast of Maidaladan, Kevin Lane receives a summons to fulfill his own destiny, and then the path towards ending the winter becomes clearer. War eventually comes to the land. And the answer to the survival of Light lies at sea, on the mysterious island of Cader Sedat, where the magic cauldron of Kath Meigol lies.

The Wandering Fire might have been the dreaded middle book of a fantasy series, but Kay has attempted to solve that problem by introducing the idea of the winter that claims Fionavar. He also brings in the myth of King Arthur, understanding his role not as that of an invincible king, but as a killer of children. Although Kay does not pause to explain all of Arthurian mythology, you can pick up on the hints he drops about Arthur’s past, if you are unfamiliar with the legends.

Merlin foretold that a child who was born (the young Mordred) would eventually overthrow Arthur’s power, so he advised Arthur to execute the children of his realm. He becomes cursed for his infanticide to return from death every once in a while to repeat the old story pattern of the love triangle involving Guinevere and Lancelot. Jennifer Lowell actually becomes Guinevere, as she takes on the role that must be played in this iteration of the Arthur narrative. The use of Arthurian myth is a definite strong point of this middle novel.

By the end, all the characters are off on their own quest, as war threatens to annihilate the entire Tapestry, if it is lost. More loss and grief emerges in this novel, as more characters sacrifice themselves for others, and for the greater good.

The feelings were powerful, but I will criticize this about Kay: he includes a few too many mentions of “grief” and “layers of grief” and other such references to the emotion, that it begins to lack variety. Perhaps because I read his novel in a relatively short time, I became over-saturated with that emotion, and the phrasings to demonstrate it. Nonetheless, it does not seriously impede the flow of the novel, and if anything, it increases the sense that The Fionavar Tapestry is definitely not a travel guide to a vacation destination, but a truly epic fantasy novel about a land called Fionavar.

The Wandering Fire contains all that I have mentioned, and so much more in the details. And the final novel of the series, The Darkest Road, forms the climax.

Photo Credits:

The Wandering Fire Cover: http://neverbakeinblack.blogspot.ca/2012/02/top-ten-books-that-broke-my-heart.html

The Fionavar Tapestry Book 1: The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

Last summer, I read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy novels that had been published up until then (River of Stars was only published this year), but a large blank spot was left in the Kay canon where I had not read. This blank spot was The Fionavar Tapestry. An epic fantasy trilogy published the 1980s, The Fionavar Tapestry is still a much appreciated and remembered trilogy, described by an Interzone reviewer as “the only fantasy book I know which does not suffer in comparison to The Lord of the Rings.”

I have now read The Fionavar Tapestry, and will be posting book reviews of each book over the next few weeks.

Those who were first introduced to Kay through his historical fantasy novels will find the routes of some of his ideas in this early trilogy. For example, Kay picked up on the importance of names in ancient cultures while writing The Fionavar Tapestry and used those ideas in Tigana. Also, the relationship between mages and their sources, which features prominently in The Fionavar Tapestry, gets explored in Alessan’s relationship to Erlein di Senzio in Tigana. Many of the themes of history, remembrance, and the price of power are consistent across the books Kay has written, right up to Under Heaven. Kay mentions his inspirations in his many interviews.

But now onto the first book of the trilogy, The Summer Tree.

Five University of Toronto students get transported to Fionavar, the first of all worlds, after a reclusive lecturer on Celtic studies, Lorenzo Marcus, turns out to be Loren Silvercloak, a mage from the kingdom of Brennin. The students are Kimberly Ford, an intern at a hospital, Kevin Lane and Dave Martyniuk, who are law students, the latter on a basketball team, Jennifer Lowell, who was once Kevin’s lover, and Paul Schafer, a solitary man who is mourning his girlfriend, Rachel. The band of ordinary people, are transported to the first of all lands by Loren and his source Matt Sören, as entertainment for the celebration of the fiftieth year of High King Ailell’s reign.

Once in Fionavar, it becomes apparent that a great evil is stirring, as svart alfar, which are like dark elves, are spotted near Ailell’s castle. Kim Ford comes to a sacred lake and becomes the protegee of Ysanne, the Seer of Brennin, and becomes introduced to her own destiny, which is to become a Seer herself. Paul Schafer plays a chess game with the High King and learns about the price of power, and embarks on his solitary journey toward the Summer Tree, where he receives his ultimate test of endurance. Kevin Lane becomes a loyal follower of Prince Diarmuid, the sardonic and anarchic prince who attempts to seduce Sharra, the Black Rose of Cathal. Dave, however, is lost in the crossing, and lands somewhere else in Fionavar, eventually finding kinship among the horse-riding, eltor-hunting Dalrei tribesmen.

Each of the lives of the Toronto students are a thread woven into the tapestry of the Weaver, and their paths intersect and part ways, forming the shape of an intricate and interconnected narrative. Eventually, war comes from north, where the stirrings of Rakoth Maugrim the Unraveller, the foe of the Tapestry and enemy of Light, first become apparent. War is declared, and there is no hint that the coming war will be won easily, without significant personal sacrifices that cannot be undone.

The first part of the novel whizzes by fast and you have to learn about the characters on the run. My initial impression was that everyone except for Dave was failing to express the scepticism that one should expect from real citizens of the late twentieth century. But after I had read quite deeply into the series, I realized that Kay was trying for something else. Fionavar is the land where citizens of all the other universes can fulfill their true destinies, so the Torontonians must have been apprehending the significance of Fionavar intuitively, even in the early chapters. Their destinies were tugging at their consciousnesses even in our own world.

Weaving fate into a novel is a clever way to stop readers from questioning the plot, and promoting the suspension of disbelief. Kay uses it without referring explicitly to prophecies, and the effect is subtler.

On the whole, The Summer Tree is a fine first novel, and promises many great things to follow in the rest of the series. In his afterword to the 2006 omnibus edition of The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay jokingly says he wanted to write an novel of such epic scope that he could get away with writing a sentence that reads, “Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.” He does, in fact, do this. And for that, and what it implies about the quality of the rest of the series, I would say he contributed significantly to the Tolkienian tradition in his first published novel—not a mean accomplishment. Though in another writer’s hands, such an epic might have come out overblown or artificial, or too “Dungeons and Dragons”-ish, Kay uses grief and sacrifice to convey the unsettling nature of fulfilling one’s destiny in Fiovavar, and thus constructs a kind of escape that is not escapism.

Douglas Barbour described The Fionavar Tapestry as “the kind of escape that brings you home.” It brings the characters, and you, the reader, right to the unpleasant and uncomfortable center of things, the struggles of your own world, in your own soul, magnified in significance when they are fought in the first of all worlds, of which all the other worlds are but shadows, or reflections.

Not bad for a few Canadians, eh? Seriousness aside, I found much humour in imagining Dave teaching the Dalrei how to play hockey, but that’s not in the book. Probably a good thing too. (Perhaps, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be able to win the Stanley Cup at last, in Fionavar.) Also, a little humour in how Paul Schafer is also the name of the bald musician at the keyboards on The Late Show with David Letterman (though I think it’s spelled differently). But that is neither here nor there …

Next, see my review of The Wandering Fire.

Guy Gavriel Kay, author of The Fionavar Tapestry
Guy Gavriel Kay, author of The Fionavar Tapestry

Photo Credits:

-The Summer Tree Cover:  http://www.angie-ville.com/2012/05/retro-friday-review-summer-tree-by-guy.html

-Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html