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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Across the Face of the World" by Russell Kirkpatrick

Official Russell Kirkpatrick Website
Order “Across the Face of the WorldHERE
Read An Extract HERE

First published in Australia/New Zealand by HarperCollins Voyager in 2004-2005, then in the UK in 2006, Russell Kirkpatrick’s debut fantasy trilogy Fire of Heaven is now making its US debut (January 1, 2008) thanks to Orbit Books starting with the release of the first volume in the series “Across the Face of the World” with “In the Earth Abides the Flame” (Volume Two) and “The Right Hand of God” (Volume Three) to immediately follow in February and March 2008 respectively.

Besides writing, Mr. Kirkpatrick has also earned a PhD in Geography and is actually a professional mapmaker having worked on several atlases. The author’s love for cartography is apparent as soon as you open the book which features several incredibly detailed maps provided by Mr. Kirkpatrick himself. Once you actually start reading the book, it’s also clear that Russell’s passion extends to his writing, especially the depth and realism that is used in depicting Firanes’ many different landscapes, some of which are truly breathtaking. Also benefiting from the author’s meticulousness is the worldbuilding, which is rife with several races of men—each with their own cultures, beliefs, and languages; a fully developed religion that closely resembles Christianity; a magic system that is tied in to the world’s religion; and an ample supply of mythology that usually comes in the form of generic info-dumping, though occasionally you get it in fairytale mode which I personally enjoyed :) In truth, it’s a lot of information to process, but thankfully there’s a very comprehensive glossary at the end of the book to help guide readers along, including pronunciations! The most amazing thing about the worldbuilding is that Firanes—where the bulk of the novel takes place—is really just a tiny part of the universe that Mr. Kirkpatrick has created. So, if you’re a fan of in-depth worldbuilding then you have a lot to look forward to in “Across the Face of the World”, and I’m assuming the rest of the Fire of Heaven trilogy as well.

For me, I thought the worldbuilding—along with the strikingly vivid descriptions of the topography—were easily the book’s highlights, but I did have a few complaints. One was the religion. As I mentioned before, Christianity is the model on which Faltha’s faith is built upon. Not the first time that’s been done in fantasy literature, except in this case Mr. Kirkpatrick doesn’t really do much with the concept. Apart from a few name changes—Most High instead of God, Destroyer instead of Devil, et cetera—and a few other noticeable alterations, Russell seems to take the easy way out and doesn’t inject much creativity into Faltha’s religion. This also applies to the book’s local plant and wildlife. I mean, if you’re going to put that much effort into creating different races—Fenni, Fodhram, Widuz, Bhrudwans—cultures, an entire mythology and so on, why not invent a few new animals or plants along the way or least change around some names and characteristics? Obviously this is more of a personal issue, but an important one in my book… Another thing that bothered me was the lack of magic in the novel. Aside from learning about the three different aspects of the Realm of FireIllusion, Word, and Power (dark users call it magic, light users Miracle)—we hardly see any of it in action except for one instance which reminded me of Darth Vader and the Force. I’m sure we’ll get to see more of the Realm of Fire in the sequels, but I would have liked more of a demonstration in this book.

As far as the story and the characters, this is where “Across the Face of the World” starts to lose its way. Plot-wise, it doesn’t get any more contrived than this: a teenage boy living in an unimportant village in the middle of nowhere is the prophesied ‘Right Hand’ and must go on an epic quest to prevent Faltha from falling to the evil Undying Man. While there are little differences here and there like the quest originally starting out as a rescue attempt for Leith’s mother & father and then a journey to Instruere to warn the Council of Faltha about a pending invasion, the fantasy tropes are many and you’d have to be blind not to see the Tolkien resemblances. I was also reminded a bit of Robert Jordan’sThe Eye of the World” and J.V. Jones’A Cavern of Black Ice”. My main beef with “Across the Face of the World” though, aside from the clichés, is that for over 500 pages (out of 671) the story is just one long journey after another, where not much really happens, deus ex machinas seem to occur at a regular basis—although there is an explanation for this—and after a while, I just got bored. Maybe if the characters had been more interesting I wouldn’t have minded so much, but alas, they were not.

Like the plot, the characters were highly conventional. You have the aforementioned ‘Right Hand’ who just wants to be normal; a cantankerous, worldly-wise old man who is much more than the simple farmer he appears to be; the village girl that the hero is in love with, but she doesn’t reciprocate those feelings; a hermit with prophetic abilities; brothers seeking revenge for the death of their father; a musician, and various other clichés. There were a couple of characters that showed promise like the overweight Haufuth (village headman) who’s an atheist and the disabled HalLeith’s adopted brother—who seems to possess angelic-like qualities, but they are few and far between and suffer from the same lack of development that everyone else does. And that’s the main problem. You see, there are numerous characters in the story and Mr. Kirkpatrick likes changing up the viewpoints—this routinely happens from one paragraph to the next which was an annoying tactic—and the end result are personalities that are basically one-dimensional and lifeless.

In the end, I’m not sure I can recommend Russell Kirkpatrick’sAcross the Face of the World”. Maybe a YA audience might enjoy the novel or someone who hasn’t read very much epic fantasy, but serious aficionados who have devoured the works of Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan and Steven Erikson, would probably find the book sorely lacking. I know I did. I think what disappointed me the most was that it seemed like two different people were writing the novel. One showed tremendous descriptive abilities and an aptitude for worldbuilding. The other was an amateur still trying to figure out how to plot a story and write believable characters. Thankfully, those are areas that a writer can improve in, and who knows, perhaps Mr. Kirkpatrick does just that in the next two books of the Fire of Heaven trilogy. After all, he’s already hard at work on his second trilogy Husk, volume one of which, “Path of Revenge”, is currently available in Australia/New Zealand so that has to be promising. Unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy “Across the Face of the World” enough to want to find out if the author has improved or not. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever revisit the trilogy, but at the moment the sequels are not very high on my reading list…

4 comments:

reading said...

Short version: I agree.

Long version: It seemed like a lot of the story was an excuse to describe what's in the maps. The landscapes would be breathtaking I suppose, but I can get better in a National Geographic book. I did like the nice maps though, much better than the scratchings in most epic fantasy. I liked the five main characters of the Company, even if they are pretty stock. I disliked the rest of them though.

Anonymous said...

Based on what I've read I would also agree with this review.

I actually just put the book down after reading the first 6 chapters and decided to read some reviews to see if there was any hope that the book would get better.

I think I will save myself some time and just stop reading now.

Unfortunately, in spite of Mr. Kilpatrick's ability to build a detailed world (geographically at least) his talent as a writer leaves something to be desired.

SF reader said...

Starts out very promising and became a painful and boring read. There were no plot twist to make me want to turn the page. I felt no compassion for most- if not all of the main characters. I'm not sure if it's due to lack of character development or writing style. I felt that a beautiful world was created with nothing in it. I was a difficult read with every paragraph have a different POV. I gave the series a chance to redeem itself... In the end of the series, "GOD" (NOT the writer, plot, nor the development of main characters) arrives and makes everything fine. Am I reading a religion/geography book?
I'm not expecting Harry potter magic galore but there is barely any of it. And if there is, you find it summed up in one paragraph. I tried and just could not enjoy this book... perhaps if I stopped reading after the prologue.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with regards to the lack of character development, as well as the obvious parallels to other fantasies (particularly LOTR). I can't shake off the sense of anti-climax from the continuous build-up of suspense in the book.
That said, for me the beautiful descriptions and the detail of the world made it a worthwhile read.

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