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Friday, June 15, 2007

"Bitterwood" by James Maxey

Read An Excerpt HERE

Following in the footsteps of Gail Z. Martin’sThe Summoner” and Emily Gee’sThief With No Shadow” comes Solaris Books’ latest fantasy offering “Bitterwood”, written by author James Maxey, a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writers' Workshop and Orson Scott Card's Writer's Boot Camp, and whose previous works include the Phobos Award-winning short story “Empire of Dreams & Miracles”, the comic book-inspired debut novel “Nobody Gets the Girl”, and various other short stories.

Much like “The Summoner” by Gail Z. Martin, “Bitterwood” is a fast-paced, sword-and-sorcery adventure that focuses more on nonstop thrills and action of the mainstream variety, rather than any detailed characterization, worldbuilding or complex plotting. Unlike “The Summoner”, “Bitterwood” plays around with some unconventional ideas not usually found in the fantasy genre. For starters, the book is set in a far-future, technology-less Earth where dragons have become the dominant species and humans are nothing more than slaves. Obviously this brings up some interesting questions like, “Where did dragons come from?”, “How did they subvert mankind?” and “Why did the world revert back to a primitive state?” among other mysteries. While some of these issues are eventually answered, the revelations are not quite as enlightening or astonishing as the author tries to portray them as, and personally I would have appreciated more background information surrounding these monumental historical events (and other related topics) rather than the condensed details we do get.

Of course the setting is not the book’s only novelty…there is also the viewpoint of the characters in “Bitterwood”. While insurgent Bant Bitterwood is considered the main protagonist in the book, the majority of “Bitterwood” is actually told from the perspective of dragons, namely their king Albekizan, his son Shandrazel, the wizard Vendevorex, Zanzeroth the hunter, the High Biologian Metron and the king’s reviled brother Blasphet. A few other humans are also in the mix including Jandra, Vendevorex’s apprentice, Pet, and a little girl called Zeeky, but the dragons are the main attraction. I particularly enjoyed Vendevorez and Blasphet the most, but each of the dragon characters are fun to follow because they all have their own agenda, and it’s interesting to see them trying to outwit one another. About the only real issue I had with the dragons was that they thought and acted too much like the humans. Speaking of which, the actual people in “Bitterwood” are definitely the weaker characters in the book – Jandra is too schizophrenic emotionally and tends to be annoying as does Pet; Zeeky seems almost pointless (though I expect we could see much more of her in a future sequel if there is one); and Bant is a pretty formulaic ‘anti-hero’ type who lives only for revenge, though I did enjoy his flashback stories and there are parts of him I found refreshing such as his age/appearance. As a whole, the characterization is not one of the book’s strong points, but the characters are interesting enough to help “Bitterwood” work successfully as a novel, and at least the author shakes things up with a few surprising deaths.

As far as the story, it’s pretty basic stuff. A dragon is murdered by the legendary Bitterwood and spurred by that event Albekizan declares that all humans will be wiped out. From there, various plotlines converge, both of the more personal kind – vengeance, self-sacrifice, etc. – and the larger variety such as the fate of mankind. Also thrown in are elements of Christianity, warring prophets (Kamon + Ragnar), moral issues dealing with hatred & forgiveness, a quest for immortality and some nice surprises regarding the origin of dragons, the downfall of humanity, who is Hezekiah, Bant, and the secret behind Vendevorex’s magic. By the end, the majority of issues are resolved in “Bitterwood”, which is basically a standalone novel, though enough threads are left over for further exploration in potential sequels…if that is the author’s intention.

For the most part I enjoyed “Bitterwood”. It was a quick read with plenty of action and some cool concepts…after all, who doesn’t like dragons? I just felt the book had the potential to be so much better if only the worldbuilding had been more extensive, the characters further defined, the book a little less accessible and instead, darker and edgier. I can’t complain too much though. James Maxey does an admirable job with “Bitterwood” in constructing the story, employing some fresh ideas and injecting the novel with undeniable zest. In fact, I’m reminded a lot of Gail Z. Martin’s writing style. In other words, the prose may not exactly be descriptive or rich, and “Bitterwood” lacks in certain areas like the establishing of worlds and characterization, but the writing overall is consistent, confident and passionate, enough so to help overlook most of the book’s weak spots. In short, you have to give James Maxey respect for trying to do something different with the genre, and while he doesn’t wholly succeed, “Bitterwood” is, like Gail Z. Martin’sThe Summoner”, a solid fantasy adventure that should be another successful release for Solaris Books

5 comments:

Mailyn said...

I really like The Summoner so this looks like it's on the next buying trip. LOVE the cover.

I just felt the book had the potential to be so much better

I had the same problem with The Summoner but I liked it as well.

Robert said...

Well, I think you should enjoy "Bitterwood" as well since I felt it was cut from the same cloth as "The Summoner".

As far as the cover, you may know this already, but "Bitterwood" is done by the same individual who did "The Summoner": Michael Komarck

RobB said...

I saw John Marco make some positive comments on his blog about this book. After reading those comments, I considered picking it up, but your review has me rethinking that decision.

Mailyn said...

Michael is so talented!

Lorie said...

You write very well.

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