Science fiction and fantasy
The Iron Tree
by Cecilia Dart-Thornton
This is Jarred, the main character, talking: "It is no less efficacious in its protective qualities whether I wear it against my skin or over the top of many layers of clothing ... steadfastly it guards me from harm. Maybe some invisible aura emanates from it."
Jarred is talking here about a mysterious amulet that seems to make him invulnerable. This device serves to make the handsome young adventurer duller than he already is, because even when he's in a fight he's not showing bravery, and there's rarely any chance he will get hurt. It's not as if he's a particularly remarkable character in the first place. He sets off on a tour of the kingdoms of Tir with a group of his friends, but as soon as he meets the attractive young Lilith he's inclined to settle in her marshland home so he can court her. Jarred also wants nothing to do with Castle Strang, the home of a notorious evil wizard. Strang is enclosed in a dome and the place has been protected by sorcery for years.
Lilith likes Jarred, but she suffers from a family curse of madness and death that tends to be triggered after the marriage of each new generation. Then there's Eoin, Lilith's step-brother, who opposes Jarred's plans because he wants to marry Lilith himself. They live in a wight-infested place with plenty of bogs and dangerous waterways, so there's ample scope for trouble as Eoin's jealousy festers into a desire for revenge.
So The Iron Tree has the seeds of a romantic mystery with a sprinkle of magic and suspense to liven it up. But the author refuses to water those seeds with any interesting twists or character interactions. Instead there are lots of lengthy descriptions of everything, no matter how boring, and a focus on banal or pretty things. Even when someone dies, the corpse is described in glamorised terms that emphasise the serenity, tragedy and sheer gothic coolness of death, whilst carefully airbrushing out the gas-bloated, worm-bitten disgustingness. On the other hand the love story may be slushy, but it isn't remotely sexy, even when there is kissing. I've had more excitement whilst doing the laundry, not even counting the times I sit on the washing machine.
The trouble with this novel is its glacial pace. People get married, have kids, and evolve into new species before anything much happens. Towards the end things speed up, but it's the background events of life rather than a plot. Nobody has an epiphany and learns to be a better person, and we don't get much closer to learning the reason Lilith's family was cursed. There's still a lot to resolve in the next book, but the characters were too bland to make me want to read on. The only one with any appeal is Eoin, and he's pretty much defined by his obsession with Lilith and his rage.
The Iron Tree is over-long for various reasons, and one of these is that every every folk tale about wights, bargests, changelings or other eldritch creatures the author has researched has been shoehorned in, often as a digression from the main story. So it's a meandering saga of curses, tragic hippies and magical landscapes, but as far as this reader is concerned the enchantment never really begins.
10th December 2012
If you like this, try:Destiny by Elizabeth Haydon
The third instalment of the high fantasy Rhapsody trilogy.
Review © Ros Jackson