Science fiction and fantasy                                            



The Iron Tree

by Cecilia Dart-Thornton

cover  
One day someone will write a fantasy in which the hero's lost parent turns out to be a dustman, a beggar, or a maker of humble pie. Perhaps somebody already has, but it's not The Iron Tree. This story of forbidden love mines genre clichés thoroughly and methodically.

There's the unnecessary prologue which gives away a lot of the ending, and names with random apostrophes (R'shael) and obvious connotations. Castle Strang is never going to be a nice, normal place, is it? But the author's tin ear for mockdieval dialogue puts this novel firmly in the cheese and ham camp. In the first chapter the main character's mother tells him "It is a mother's lot to be forever concerned about the welfare of her children. I would give anything to ensure your security." This odd formality would be fine if it were a sign of her higher social class, but all the characters speak this way, whether they're village serfs or part of the nobility.

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

Book Details

Year: 2004

Categories: Books

  Fantasy
    Male Protagonist  

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1 star rating

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