Book Review: The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

As I stated in my last post, it’s important to maintain perspective when reviewing YA novels. However, that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be held to a standard. In my review of The Battle for Skandia, I stated how unimpressed I was with that novel and how John Flanagan is capable of much more. I even questioned whether or not I would continue with the series. Well, I need not have worried, as books 5 & 6, The Sorcerer of the North and The Siege of Macindaw are not only worthy entries in the series, they’re also probably my favorites so far.

What we have in these two books are a mystery to be solved. We have a sickened king, a fortress at risk to the neighboring Scotti, a prince that may not be fit to lead, and an evil sorcerer in the nearby woods. When Will is chosen to infiltrate the fortress as a jongleur (minstral) and find out what’s going on, the mystery begins to slowly reveal itself. Needless to say, things are not as simple as they appear, and Flanagan has a few twists and turns up his sleeve.

There are some memorable characters, both old and new, in these books. We’ve seen Alyss before, but now she is a beautiful young courier, and has replaced Evanlyn as Will’s love interest. There is the evil John Buttle, the dread sorcerer Malkallam, the strange prince Orman, the dashing king’s nephew Keren, the giant Trobar, and the healer Malcolm. All of these characters are well done and consistent in their voices and actions. But probably my favorite new character is Will’s new dog, who at various points is named Dog, Girl, Blackie, and Shadow as Will searches for a good name. As the owner of a shepherd dog myself, I have a soft spot for them and I loved this new character, who proved to be both useful and entertaining.

The first few books in the series were derivative of Magician: Apprentice by Fiest, The Dark Tide by McKiernan (which itself was a Tolkien derivative), the Prydain series by Alexander, and several others of that ilk. Flanagan has moved the series beyond that origin into new territory, although the narrative still has that same feel or style. There are areas that Flanagan still handles clumsily, such as romance and attempts at humor, but it’s nothing that ruins the story. On the other hand, Flanagan can write fight scenes with great detail, giving the reader a clear picture of what is happening. It’s probably his greatest strength.

It should be noted that Flanagan’s stories have an aversion to magic. Oh, there’s some mind control and hypnotism, some trickery, and a hint at the unexplained, but unlike the sources listed above that practically drip with magic, and other young adult novels like Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and Percy Jackson that are heavy into magic, Flanagan goes for more realism. So while his work feels derivative in some ways, in others he blazes his own trail. It’s difficult to keep a fantasy audience interested without any magic, but Flanagan handles this very well. One of my favorite scenes involves the sorcerer Malkallam using “magic” to try to extract information from the Scotti warrior MacHaddish:

“The fire was nothing but a small pile of coals now. Malkallam rose unsteadily to his feet. He pointed the black staff, threatning the trees that encircled them.

‘Stay back, I warn you!’ he called. But now a series of red flashes and flares ran through the trees, circling the clearing, throwing huge, twisted shadows across the small open space, shadows that were there and gone in an instant. And as this happened, they heard Serthrek’nish speak for the first time, his voice deep, resonant and blood-chilling.

‘The flames have died. The power of the circles is weak. I will have the blood of one of you.’

One of the Skandians went to rise, battleax ready in his hand, but Malkallam’s outstretched hand stopped him before he had gone above a crouch.

‘Stay where you are, you fool!’ his voice cracked like a whip. ‘He says he wants one and one only. He can have the Scotti.’

‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’ MacHaddish’s cry was high-pitched and agonized. To the Skandians, the demonic red face was a terrifying apparition. But to MacHaddish, it lay at the very heart of terror. It was the basis of all fear for Scottis, instilled in them when they were children. The flesh eater, the renderer, the tearer of limbs – Serthrek’nish was all of these things and more. It was the demon, the ultimate evil in Scotti superstition. Serthrek’nish didn’t just kill his victims. He stole their souls and their very being, feeding on them to make himself stronger. If Serthrek’nish had your soul, there was no hereafter, no peace at the end of the long mountain road.

And there was no memory of the victim either, for if a person were taken by Serthrek’nish, his family were compelled to expunge all memory of him from their minds.

With Malkallam’s words, MacHaddish knew he was not facing just a terible death. He was facing a forever of nothing. He looked up now into the implacable face as the wizard stepped toward him.

‘No,’ he pleaded. ‘Please. Spare me this.’

But the blackthorn rod had moved out and begun to scrub an opening in the circle of black powder that surrounded MacHaddish.

Frantically, MacHaddish tried to restore it, pushing the powder back into place with his hand, but his efforts only succeeded in widening the gap. His breath sobbed in his throat, and tears of abject terror scored a path through the blue paint on his face.”

In conclusion I think these latest two entries are a worthy read for those who don’t mind a fast-moving, young adult adventure, that doesn’t contain any magic. Though these are classified as young adult, they are written well enough for an adult to enjoy. I consider such books a guilty pleasure, especially when I don’t have a lot of reading time or after I’ve polished off a huge epic.

Book Review: Clash of the Demons by Joseph Delaney

It’s always good to keep perspective in mind when reviewing a book. If I were to score Wrath of the Bloodeye a 10 because it was a page turner, while giving Gardens of the Moon a 7 for lack of characterization, I would be compromising my integrity as a reviewer. Delaney has taken the easy road while Erikson has striven for a difficult masterpiece. If Erikson falls short, it is still falling short at a level far above Delaney. Joseph Delaney’s target audience is young adult; Steven Erikson’s target audience is adult, highly educated, and capable of making complex connections within the text. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a Delaney book as an adult, but I cannot compare the two books to each other by using a scoring system, as I have explained above and also in some of my past entries.

Why the opening disclaimer? The truth is, if I have a negative impression of a Delaney book, it must be looked at from the perspective that, given its target audience, my impression probably means very little. If the target audience is impressed with a book, then the author has done his or her job.

Clash of the Demons is the sixth book in the Last Apprentice series. You’ll find links to my reviews of previous books in the series over in the sidebar. At 395 pages, it is shorter than the last few books. At quite frankly, I was disappointed with this book.

From the very start of the book, things just seem different from previous books, and not in a good way. Tom’s Mam has changed. He is leaving the county behind, to travel to Greece. And he’s allied with the witches of Pendle. Events proceed slowly, with the majority of the book being about the journey to and through Greece, to finally face the ultra-powerful witch Ordeen.

Besides moving the story to a completely different environment and a heavy focus on the trip, the other thing that bothered me about the story was that I seemed curiously detached from the characters and action, which I had not experienced before in the series. As Delaney tries to describe the mystical realm of Ord and the battle that takes place there, he reaches for more but comes up short. His fast-moving, just-enough-detail approach has served him well in the prior books, but here is where such an approach falls flat. As I finished the story I found I could remember few details about the Ord – maybe such details were there, but they didn’t resonate with me. This is where someone with wonderful world-building skills like Stephen Donaldson or Robert Jordan would set a memorable scene, but Delaney simply does not provide enough detail.

The most glaring, disappointing characteristic of the story, however, is the fact that it just isn’t scary. The appeal of this series has been witches crawling out of holes, things not appearing as they seem, and being pursued and hunted in the dark. Up to this point, Delaney had done a wonderful job setting up scary or intense scenes. In this story, however, I never felt that.

Combine all this with some Deus Ex Machina devices during the Ord battle and the devastating losses Tom suffers, and the book becomes quite unappealing. I liked previous books because they were dark; here, rather than darkness, we simply have bleakness.

Due to the lack of appeal I found within the book, it took me over a week to read instead of the usual 2-3 days I have become accustom to (and this is a smaller book!). This is by far the weakest book in the series. Now that the next story will resume in the familiar setting of the County, I’m hoping that the series returns to its roots and allows Delaney to do what he does best – write a compelling story that has some frightening moments, while outside the rain drums on the roof, the wind howls and creates banging noises, and the tree branches scrape and tap on the window, all seeking to immerse me in the darkness…