Science fiction and fantasy


by Rhiannon Paille


As befits the first story in The Ferryman and the Flame series, this novel starts off hot. A young man is hanging around a waterfall watching an elven woman skinny dip, and although they're strangers to each other they soon decide they don't want to stay that way. However he's part of some celibate Brotherhood, whilst she is part of a race that isn't known for taking life partners. Rather than having parents that bred the usual way Kaliel, the swimmer, appeared at the foot of a tree as a baby. Yet she's equipped for the human method of reproduction.

Kaliel is a classic Chosen One. She can talk to trees, make flowers bloom at her feet, and converse with the mermen that everyone else is afraid of. She also has a mysterious, special kind of energy locked inside her, and this is one of the things that attracts Krishani, the young man at the waterfall. However she's completely useless at her lessons. All of this is a lot like Krishani, who has so little control over his magic powers that he tends to destroy everything when he lets it loose. He's also plagued by nightmares of death which he struggles to make sense of.

In this world everyone goes to the Great Oak when they reach a certain age, and the tree gives them their personal parable. Kaliel's is baffling and ominous, whilst Krishani's is ominous and baffling. His also seems to mark him for greatness. But one thing is for sure: their relationship is forbidden every which way, by prophecy, convention, and theoretically by the constraints of biology: elvens just aren't that into love, as a rule. They are both supposed to "marry the land", whatever that means (there's no explanation, but I suppose that's why elven babies appear under trees in Spring and Summer). The land of Avristar has been at peace for centuries, but a creeping corruption from the Lands of Men threatens it. An ancient foe is stirring, and if it comes to Avristar it could destroy everything.

I expected this big, scary evil to introduce itself far earlier than it did. 100 pages in we're still floundering close to where the story started, with Kaliel being typically disobedient and getting herself into minor difficulties. 200 pages in the main characters are having a few more cryptic visions, but they're still at the stage of being passed around tutors who can't teach them much of anything, and not much has changed. It's not just that the pace is slow, the problem is that the stakes are too low for too long.

By this point I had started to dislike the main characters. Their determination to be with each other no matter the cost to everyone else in the country makes them seem very selfish, and Kaliel in particular seems completely wet. She barely does anything for herself, and her default attitude seems to be flopping about weeping about how unfair everything is. It's not as if we need another spineless heroine providing a pathetic role model to young female readers. Kaliel is incapable of learning, to the extent that she can barely make a cup of tea. She struggles with herb lore and finding her place in the world, and her lack of discipline makes her tutors despair. It's as though the text is saying, "don't try to improve yourself, your innate talents will see you through." She basically has the magic she was born with and the ability to give up when things get bad. Sometimes she even cuts herself.

This is set in a universe that paints sex between consenting adults as some kind of taint that will destroy entire countries. Forbidden love plots can be sweet and filled with pent-up tensions, but this scenario is crude. Kaliel is painted as this pure, lovely, virginal character whose touch makes flowers grow; but once she thinks about her boyfriend those flowers turn to weeds. And whilst Krishani corrupts her, her presence only improves his magical abilities. It's a very repressive view of female sexuality.

The dialogue is fairly flat and uninspiring, but that's because the characters are often under-developed. For instance, there are three condescending witches who come across as evil schemers. Various elders are slightly bossy and secretive, mostly wise but otherwise nondescript. And Kaliel's friend Pux is a playful, hairy feorn who is reluctant to grow up. None of the characters are sly or multifaceted enough to be interesting, and they all tend to show their true faces as soon as they're introduced. So when dramatic things finally do happen during the last chapters it doesn't have the impact it's meant to. The villain steps out and plants wilt and rot where he walks, in a display of unrelenting, uninspiring badness. But by then I had stopped caring about any of the characters.

12th February 2013

Book Details

Year of release: 2012

Categories: Books

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2 star rating

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