Book Review: The Crimson Vault by Will Wight

crimson vault

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  380

Reading time:  about 9.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: As the Incarnations of the Territories begin to break free, and war breaks out between Enosh and Damasca, Simon and his friends find their allegiances shifting as they struggle to determine who their enemy truly is.

I was pretty impressed by Will Wight’s House of Blades – so much so that I purchased The Crimson Vault and City of Light in order to continue following the story. The Crimson Vault is the middle book in the series…does it suffer from middle book syndrome (existing only to bridge the gap between the first and third books), or does it exceed the first story (a tall order)? Read on to find out, and I’ve actually managed to keep spoilers to a minimum this time. First, however, we turn to some other reviews online. I was a bit concerned as I had trouble finding reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, which can be a bad sign, but I was finally able to settle on a couple thoughtful reviews.

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands states: “There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men’s souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do. Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants. When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone…Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself…All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11. This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen.

Wizard’s Blog says: “Compared with the first book in the series, this one has a lot more point of view characters. I think this is an improvement, because one of my complaints about the first book was not understanding some of the main characters because we spent very little time with them, but it does make it harder to keep track of what’s going on… I do still feel like the author should have spent some more time with some of the main characters so that the choices they make seem less arbitrary – with Alin in particular I feel like I’ve been told what he’s done and why he did it rather than experiencing it with him and empathising with his choices…It does have a plot arc, but (unsurprisingly for the middle book in a trilogy) it leaves a lot of things for the third book to resolve. Overall it’s better than the first one but not perfect.

 

The Crimson Vault is a much different book than House of Blades. At first they seem similar, as something bad happens in the beginning and then the rest of the story centers around the fallout from that event. The plot of House of Blades could be boiled down to “young man trains to become a hero then goes on a mission of revenge”. Conversely, The Crimson Vault focuses on a large scale battle, shifting allegiances, and as Benjamin calls it, “moral complexity”. The plot is much more chaotic than the straight and narrow line its predecessor walks, and although some plot points are revealed, they don’t really have the same impact of those in the first book, which were more intricate – those “a-ha!” moments, and had me drawing comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The Crimson Vault didn’t really have the same effect.

Though Simon is still the focus, more time is spent on developing the other main characters, Alin and Leah, which is of much benefit to the story. Leah’s development in particular was one of great interest to me. The “succession”, or those siblings of Leah’s who want to take her father’s place, has taken a toll on her and pushed her towards a destiny she never saw coming. I was also able to empathize more with her character as she struggled between that destiny and the empathy she felt from her time spent in Simon’s village. She seems particularly focused on “the greater good”, where some must die in order to save multitudes. Simon and Alin don’t quite grasp or agree with this concept. It is a perfect contrast between the outlook of the ruling class and the working/villager class.

The Crimson Vault suffers from the same issue that I felt afflicted House of Blades: it simply isn’t long enough. Although it is 100 pages longer than the first book, some of the scenes in The Crimson Vault suffer due to brevity, in particular the large scale battle I mentioned above. There is no page time devoted to the actual siege of Enosh by the Damascan army; the layout of Leah’s war camp is not described well, and the battle with the Incarnation had me wondering where everyone was in relation to each other – what were the soldiers doing? How did some people just disappear from the battlefield? Were some characters simply bystanders? A lot of detail that would have been very helpful to “paint a picture” or “set the scene” is missing. As a result, I felt greatly detached from what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story. Finally, although I admire Wight’s effort to try something fairly groundbreaking, I felt that the sheer amount of changes and chaos, combined with the lack of detail mentioned above, gave the story a feeling of being “all over the place” and lacking focus.

There are a few other problems, such as how Simon was able to use a very dangerous artifact for so long without becoming an Incarnation himself, and although Wight’s writing has improved in this second book, there’s some modern phrasing used that is distracting and out of place…it felt more like I was reading subtext in a Final Fantasy video game than a fantasy novel. Which in turn reminds of another problem, the “leveling up” of the characters, particularly Simon…it’s almost like I’m reading about a video game being played as Simon and Alin get more and more abilities and items as they gain experience. And speaking of Alin, his character was inconsistent with regard to the portrayal of abilities in House of Blades. In that story, he seemed to have almost endless reserves of power when battling the Overlord. Yet here, he seems barely able to get past less (or equal) opposition, and in a couple of cases is forced to retreat. It felt like he was actually weaker when he should have been stronger.

In conclusion, I feel a bit isolated in saying that I actually enjoyed House of Blades more. That does not seem to be the case for most other reviewers, who on Goodreads and Amazon proclaim that they liked The Crimson Vault better. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this sequel is a bad story, and I enjoyed the improved characterization of Leah and Alin…the plot just didn’t grip me and have the same payoffs at the end that the first book did, which is typical of “middle book syndrome”. I’m still quite interested in finding out how things will turn out in the final book of the series, City of Light.

Advertisements

Book Review: House of Blades by Will Wight

house of bladesFormat:  paperback, revised edition, 2013

Pages:  288

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  A young boy experiences tragedy and vows to save his village, and he achieves the means to do so through willpower and persistence – but finds out that the world isn’t as black and white as he originally thought.

I first heard of Will Wight when I was searching for information on Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen prior to purchasing it. I had never heard of Wight before to that, but his name started popping up due to his endorsement of The Crimson Queen. I liked Hutson’s book so much that I thought Wight’s recommendation might mean we had similar tastes, and that maybe I would like Wight’s The Travelers Gate series. So I purchased the first entry, House of Blades, and vowed that if I liked it I would buy and read the following two books. So here’s my review of House of Blades. It’s chock full of spoilers – Wight’s book is so intricately crafted that I won’t be able to explore it without revealing plot points – so read on at your own risk.

I found several “reviews” of House of Blades, but some of them just rehash the synopsis or are very shallow. I’m going to turn to only two of them that I thought made some excellent points. Brian Stewart of Brian’s Book Blog states: “I say it was incredibly surprising because it was very good. Not necessarily something I would consider up there with the best in the fantasy genre, mind you, but it was precisely the kind of fantasy book I like…The parts of the book where Simon learns how to become a Traveler – the magic users in the book – are surreal and compelling. The notion of a characters being trained with strange methods by quirky teachers is not new, nor is the use of strange and magical places where normal rules of time and being don’t apply. But the make up and execution of this part of the book really drew me in, it was done so well. All the constant tests and trials Simon faces were very creatively conceived…Where Alin is dead-set on revenge against the Overlord, Simon is exposed to the war between his kingdom and those that see Alin as their saviour. He is forced to save people who are supposed to be his enemies from his own friends and villagers. He saves his Overlord’s family in the middle of the climactic battle between Alin and the Overlord. And Leah gives the perspective of her kingdom and her father. There might be a good reason why those sacrifices, as brutal as they are, are conducted. It might actually be saving everyone from something worse…The world is fairly creative, though there isn’t much depth to it. The book has a nice pace to it, but the book is fairly short and some parts feel rushed – the magic system and the world building could have used more elaboration for my tastes. The quality of the prose ranges at times between passable to kind of very good, but the construction of the story overall is good to very good. What I love about the book, in the end, is the creativity. The subversion of tropes and expectations reminds me of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. The quality of writing isn’t quite up to that standard, however.

Another perspective comes from a site called Wizard’s Blog: “One of the reasons I chose this book was mention in the blurb of the main character not being destined to save the world. The main character being a prophesied hero is such an overused cliche that I appreciate that the author has turned it on its head. As a result of this, the book has unusual dual protagonists – the prophesied hero and the other guy. It’s funny when they get in each other’s way trying to save the day. One of the ways the writing is less than top notch is that the major relationships in the book are not really established. We’re told that the three main characters lived in the same village but didn’t know each other well and then they go off in different directions. It doesn’t result in a lot of reader investment in the relationships. The book also spends almost all of its time with the main character so we don’t learn enough about the other two to understand them well. There was some confusion in the book about the chronology of events – one character got somewhere as a bad thing started, another character arrived there as it ended but somehow they both arrived at the same time. There was no explanation, so I assume it just wasn’t written clearly enough. Unfortunately one of the things that the book glossed over was morality – the main character went from having never killed anyone and having no desire to, to killing 75 people over the course of a couple pages, without enough of a transition or consequences.

These are really great reviews, and Brian nails it when he evokes Brandon Sanderson, because I thought exactly the same thing. The strange thing is, I didn’t really feel that way until I got to the end of the story, and therein lies the heart of Wight’s brilliance and intricate crafting of his plot. The beginning of the story feels unspectacular and full of tropes. I doesn’t help that the prose and dialog is a bit clumsy and doesn’t flow well, and things happen for no apparent reason. For instance, the main character, Simon, is a young boy when his parents are attacked; his father is killed and his mother is driven insane because of a flippant comment his mother makes to two travelers. This event at the outset makes absolutely no sense. Furthermore, Simon is saved by a mysterious figure that he goes looking for later, only to find a different mysterious figure. It makes no sense as to why all these mysterious figures are running around this particular forest. But by the end of the book, though it is not explained outright, some hints are dropped that tie these questionable points together and things begin to make a lot more sense, in a way that reminded me very much of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.

Then there’s Simon’s training. The second mysterious figure, named Kai, at first rebuffs Simon’s request for training, then acquiesces and to me it wasn’t clear why Kai would waste his time doing so. But then we are given backstory into Kai’s past and what his Territory of Valinhall desires, and once again questionable plot points become more clear. Simon’s training very much reminded me of an anime-inspired video game – there are definitely some Asian and anime influences. Just to clarify, each Traveler has a Territory that they draw power from, which I drew parallels of to Steven Erikson’s concept of Warrens as a place where magic users draw power from. Something I liked about House of Blades was that even if you weren’t born with powers, you could be granted them by the Territory itself (or rather those who dwell in the Territory) if you were found worthy. I also liked the concept of Simon’s power having to recharge so that he had to figure out when to use it and when to recharge, which seemed almost video game-like. It meant that not all of his problems could be solved using unlimited amounts of magic, which was appealing.

The characters are a mixed bag. Simon is a likable enough hero, although his jealousy and competitiveness can be annoying. Still, he’s got some admirable qualities – the desire to save innocent people, willpower, persistence, the years of abuse he suffers in an effort take care of his insane mother, all make him a sympathetic character. However, as Wizard’s Blog states, the morality of the mass killing he must do to rescue the villagers isn’t really explored…that sort of thing changes a person, but it seemed to have little effect on Simon other than in passing. Alin, on the other hand, is far too shallow to have viewpoint devoted to him, but I appreciate his role in Wight’s trope-twisting efforts. Still, it feels like there’s a couple of chapters missing that covers Alin’s training and how and why he gets to the city of Bel Calim when he does. Leah is the most intriguing character – torn between her service to her father and the people of the village she lived with and spied on for two years, she has to make some tough decisions. It’s unclear why the King sent his own daughter away for two years to spy on the villagers – couldn’t he have used someone else? And why were the villagers being spied on? Presumably she was looking for signs of the “Chosen One”, but how did the King know that person would come from Simon’s village? These are questions I’m waiting for answers to. Like Alin, I felt more pages should have been devoted to Leah’s viewpoint.

Other characters are surprisingly deep in the contrasts within their personalities. Chaim, from Simon’s village, goes from being a victim to a “get the torches and pitchfork” villager. The Overlord Malachai is described as vain and lazy, and his methods for obtaining sacrifices are unnecessarily brutal. Yet he loves his family, and in the face of death thinks of the future of the kingdom and how Simon will be an asset. I love the scene where Simon explains that he is there to confront the Overlord for destroying his village and Malachai exclaims, “Seven Stones, I have had more trouble over that village…” I also enjoyed the race called the Nye, who were brilliantly written.

My main problem with House of Blades was, as I mentioned above, not enough pages devoted to Alin and Leah, and I would agree with Brian that more world building was needed. In fact, I think the book suffers from being about 100-120 pages too short. It’s not epic fantasy – more like Sword & Sorcery – but I think Wight could have expanded things a bit and the pace still would have been fine. Also, Alin’s character is a bit unbelievable, as he was able to resist the Overlord’s power and find hidden reserves of strength and magic without an explanation as to how this was possible. Also, the rebellious people of Enosh aren’t given enough time to explain what their outlook is, where their prophecy comes from, and what threat they represent to the kingdom. Occasionally Wight gets a little too cute with his supporting characters, like Andra, the thirteen year old girl that Simon rescues who acts flippant during the rescue, and later has improbably defeated some of the trials in Valinhall (although it is hinted that the Nye may have helped). Finally, as I also mentioned above, at times the prose and dialog is choppy and does not flow smoothly.

These issues are all minor criticisms, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed House of Blades. Despite some early struggles, persevering and investing in the story paid off, and by the end I was shaking my head at Wight’s cleverness. I even went back to re-read the first two chapters after I had finished the book, and it was amazing how many little clues Wight dropped early on and how the pieces began to fit into place for me. It is in this context that the intricacies of the plot, including the “maybe the bad guy was really not as bad as we thought” aspect that had me making comparisons to Mistborn. So I’m moving forward with ordering the sequels The Crimson Vault and City of Light, hoping for more of the same excellence I found here.