February 18, 2012
How do you market a wretched fantasy book to a much younger audience? Why, you chop it in half and sell it as two separate, shorter books!
Sadly for Robert Stanek's "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches," which is the first half of "Keeper Martin's Tales." this just highlights what a confusing, frustrating train wreck his attempt at an epic fantasy is. There's almost nothing going on (even compared to the later works of Robert Jordan), the characters are disastrously shallow and/or obnoxious, the conflict is impossible to understand, and the way that Stanek writes every scene is brain-meltingly dull.
I wish I could summarize this book properly, but it's difficult to even do that much. Basically, a war is brewing among the four kingdoms, although I'm not sure who the villains are, what caused the conflict, or why the heroes are involved. It's not a good sign for an epic fantasy when your initial response is a long string of one-word questions: "Why? How? When? What? Huh?"
Three particular characters become embroiled in the conflict -- sociopathic "spunky princess" Adrina, the befuddled elf bodyguard Seth, and the sadistic magical child Vilmos. Vilmos is taken under the wing of wizened magician Xith; Seth is sent by the Elf Queen to get involved in... some conflict; and Adrina, after much contrived castle intrigue, goes... somewhere with her love interest Emel.
Yeah, "Keeper Martin's Tales" was a disaster of a book, but "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches" is actually WORSE than the book it makes up the first half of. Stanek took what little substance the original "adult" book had, and halved it. Even if this semi-crooked approach to publishing weren't.... well, semi-crooked, this was not a good thing. It actually highlights just how LITTLE is actually going on in the story... and it ends at a totally random spot with a very awkwardly-placed "to be continued."
It's also painfully confusing; I had no idea what caused the war, who was involved in it, or even who the villains were. Robert Stanek is absolutely ghastly at exposition -- he's one of those authors who seems to assume that you understand all the terminology and backstory of his world without actually EXPLAINING it or finding some way (ancient texts, letters, dialogue) to exposit.
The plot (if you can say there is one) is a meandering disaster of inexplicable events (Vilmos encounters a two-headed beast that... has nothing to do with anything else). Stanek doesn't really bother to give any actual texture to his imaginary world and cultures -- there's a castle, and there's a place with elves and mood-ring rooms, but not much else. It's like a 2-dimensional stage set. Also, Stanek clearly has no idea how subplots progress, since he flings his characters to wherever he feels like putting them, without warning. For instance, in one chapter Seth is hanging out in the Elf... city? Country? Civilization?.... and the next he's suddenly in battle hundreds of miles away.
Furthermore, Stanek has a writing style that manages to be both bloated and vacuous, so that the act of reading it is like trying to do the backstroke in zero gravity. There's little substance there, but you have to slog through so much that it becomes exhausting to try to read. He keeps using words that he clearly doesn't understand ("Galan had the insatiable curiosity of a preborn child") and phrases that don't belong in a fantasy book ("It is called non-corporeal stasis, an out of body experience"). His writing simply rambles on without any actual POINT, littered with gaping plot holes, terrible metaphors, and Big Significant Events that.... aren't. And of course, his dialogue often sinks into nonsense (“Rouse two guards to council doors").
Stanek's characters are almost as ghastly as his prose -- Adrina, Seth and Vilmos all show signs of sociopathic behavior, whether it's frightening other people for fun or cold-bloodedly manipulating them. Nobody in this book does anything in a logical manner, bursting into tears or freaking out based on... whatever the author wants them to do at a given moment. Adrina is a particularly annoying character, since she also embodies the Rebellious Princess trope. So she would be irritating even if she weren't a sociopath.
As if "Keeper Martin's Tales" wasn't teeth-grindingly annoying already, "The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches" takes what little content Stanek's book had... and gives you only half for your money. Save your money for a book by Tolkien.