Format: Oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2017
Reading Time: about 6 hours
Forsaken Kingdom is author J.R. Rasmussen’s debut fantasy novel. I purchased this book based on Amazon reviews, before I learned of the “pay for review” scheme that I mentioned in previous posts. With an average rating of 4.5 stars on Amazon, and after reading the book, I am highly suspicious of that rating. Forsaken Kingdom is not a bad book by any means, but neither is it worthy of a rating equal to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn or Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, both of which are also rated at 4.5 stars. To be fair, Forsaken Kingdom has less than 50 reviews, so that’s a pretty small sample size, but I would expect to see at least one or two critical reviews at this point. Read on to discover my impressions, and as always, expect a few minor spoilers.
One of the factors that drew my interest in reading this book was that the protagonist, Wardin Rath, decides at the tender age of 12 that he needs to protect his magical school, called a magistry. He does this by surrendering to his enemy and has his past memories “wiped” and replaced with new, fabricated memories that make him think he is a common servant rather than a prince. When the spell that took his memories begins to fail, however, we are led on a quest where Wardin must discover who he is and where he came from. Although this seems like a pretty unique plot, it’s not the first time a protagonist has lost his or her memory – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle was the first story that I could recall to use this plot device. However, the method in which the memory wipe is accomplished is pretty unique, and the reason Wardin isn’t executed on the spot makes perfect sense. The enemy, King Bramwell, has a very complex personality. Kudos to Rasmussen for developing Bramwell into a character both despicably brutal and yet able to be touched by sentiment in a believable way.
Another factor I found intriguing was the magic system. There are three schools of magic: contrivance, battlemage, and sagacity. Most people with magic talents use only one of these schools, and doing so requires “balance”; for instance, if you use too much contrivance, a spirit-based school, you need to balance that by performing physical activities such as hiking or scrubbing floors. Becoming “out of balance” leads to catatonic states and madness. Also, magical dogs known as blackhounds can provide a boost of power to a spellcaster through touch. However, by the end of the book it’s still not clear what a person’s limits are, what they are capable of, or what determines whether they can perform magic in the first place (it seems perhaps to be an innate, random ability).
I struggled through the beginning of the book a bit, as the dialog and descriptions are a bit choppy, and everyone seems to have the same voice. As the story progresses, however, Rasmussen settles into a good rhythm and the prose flows a bit better, while characters begin to develop distinct differences. (Spoiler ahead! Skip to next paragraph if necessary!) For the most part, character motivations are explained and believable, including when Wardin returns to the magistry. He has difficulty in cultivating trust with the magistry’s ruling powers, including Wardin’s childhood friend Eriatta, now the archmagister, who believes Wardin might be working for the enemy and trying to destroy them. Wardin is frustrated that he can’t convince them that he is not a threat because his memories haven’t returned. It’s only when a magic item conveniently has the ability to sort out the truth that story progresses. Rasmussen also does a good job of using an early plot device to foreshadow the means by which Wardin is able to repel the army that is about to invade the valley…this was quite clever and nicely done.
Main characters initially feel two dimensional, but Rasmussen does a good job of developing them as the story progresses. I like Erietta, who is strong and courageous, and her twin brother Arun, Wardin’s best friend who has a happy-go-lucky personality. Erietta has conveniently become archmagister despite being only 20 years old; while her character is smart, this seems like a bit of a reach. Minor characters aren’t quite fleshed out like main characters are. Also, Rasmussen experiences a little of what I call “Brooks Syndrome”, where we see few if any supporting characters, “common folk” from the magistry and the kingdom of Eyrdon, and those that we do see are combative or self-serving. It is hard to empathize with protecting such people – instead we have to root for the heroes.
The story has some problems that I feel I need to point out. Although King Bramwell has been established as a complex character who has selfish and brutal motives, we don’t understand why this is. He has killed all of his rivals, yet those rivals were his friends when he was younger. There’s not enough explanation provided as to why he killed all of his friends. He did seem to be jealous and wanted to kill everyone with magic powers because he had none himself, and everyone with magic powers is a threat to overthrow him. But it’s really left to the reader to put two and two together, because we are only given brief glimpses into the king’s past, either as a child playing with his friends, or on the field of battle where he’s killing those friends. I just think a little more depth here would be nice.
Another problem is travel. There is a map provided in the front, which is appreciated, but I didn’t get a good feel as to how far it is from one place to another. And how characters get from one place to another isn’t really explored – they just “arrive” with no explanation of what happened on the journey. Characters just pop into where they need to be in order to move the plot from Point A to Point B. I understand travel can be quite boring, but there should be some kind of attempt to describe the journey, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. There’s another sequence where Erietta is captured by the king’s son, Prince Tobin. Although I liked the sequence of events that leads to her attempted escape, the person who aids her escape arrives from far away and at just the right time, once again with no attempt to describe the journey or timing, the helper just appears and advances the plot to where it needs to go.
The most glaring problem, however, occurs at the big climactic battle near the end that the story has been building up to. (Spoiler ahead! Skip to next paragraph if necessary!) I understand that Wardin hated the king, even though Bramwell could have executed him from the start but didn’t. And I also understand that Wardin was unable to control his rage and rushed to attack the king. This is an important development in the plot, because it helps Wardin win the respect of Wardin’s Eyrdish countrymen, who essentially switch sides during the battle. In reality, however, Wardin should have died instantly. Throughout the story Bramwell has been portrayed as a more-than-competent warrior, who has killed all of his rivals, including those with magical abilities. It’s ludicrous to think that Wardin, a 20 year old boy with very little weapons training, could last longer than 10 seconds in combat with a man that desperately wants to kill him, a man that has proven to be so competently brutal and effective in battle. Rasmussen even acknowledges this by stating that “he was barely twenty years old, inadequately trained and not at all experienced, facing a true swordsman, a true warrior.” There’s no actual description of the fight scene itself, only that Wardin manages to fend off Bramwell’s attacks until help arrives. It actually ruined the story for me, to have this nonsensical sequence lead to an unbelievable victory for Wardin, and turns what could have been a passable story into a disappointing failure.
As I stated at the beginning of the review, Forsaken Kingdom isn’t a bad tale. There’s much to like, and I was engaged in following Wardin’s and Erietta’s efforts, as Wardin tried to recover his memories and the two friends attempted to save their magistry. However, an unbelievable ending unravels all the good work that went before it, and a bad habit of glossing over travel, combat, and events to get characters and/or the plot to where they need to be makes it hard for me to recommend Forsaken Kingdom except to those willing to overlook such flaws. I won’t be purchasing the sequel, A Dark Reckoning, which is due out this Spring 2018, and I’ll be watching to see if the ratings on Amazon remain unbelievably high.