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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

King Of Shards by Matthew Kressel (Reviewed by Joshua Redlich)


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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award-nominated writer and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor living in New York City. His short fiction has appeared in such magazines as Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, io9.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as other markets. He is the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan and a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writing group. Kressel is an IT consultant by trade and a student of the Yiddish language. King of Shards is his debut novel.

OVERVIEW: Across the ineffable expanse of the Great Deep float billions of shattered universes: the Shards. Populated with vengeful demons and tormented humans, the Shards need Earth to survive just as plants need water. Earth itself is kept alive by 36 righteous people, 36 hidden saints known as the Lamed Vav. Kill but a few of the Lamed Vav and the Earth will shatter, and all the Shards that rely upon it will die in a horrible cataclysm.

When Daniel Fisher is abducted on his wedding day by the demon king, Ashmedai, he learns he is a Lamed Vav, one of the hidden righteous upholding the world. The demon Mashit has usurped the throne of demonkind from Ashmedai and has been systematically murdering the Lamed Vav. On a desert-covered Shard teeming with strange creatures, pursued by a fearsome demon army, Daniel and Ashmedai, saint and demon, must join forces to stop Mashit before she destroys all of existence. Daniel's survival means he must ally with evil Ashmedai. Yet who but a saint—a Lamed Vav—can save the world?

FORMAT: King of Shards, Matthew Kressel’s debut novel and the first installment in The Worldmender Trilogy, is a portal fantasy rooted in Jewish mythology. It was published by Arche Press on October 13, 2015 and is available as a paperback, e-book, and audio book.

ANALYSIS: It isn’t often that one finds a portal fantasy based on Jewish teachings and mythology, so when I discovered that Matthew Kressel had written one, I was very excited to read it. Unfortunately, the book’s unique premise is possibly King of Shards’s single redeeming quality.

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I have always felt that a poor cover is usually an accurate indicator of what lies inside. As such, I was wary of King of Shards from the moment it arrived in the mail, as the book has the appearance of being either self-published or an advance reader’s copy, with bright white paper, an atrocious cover font and layout, and too many lines of text per page. I feel it's never a good sign when the first printing is in paperback, especially when it’s from a publisher I have never heard of before: Arche Press. I should have heeded the warnings.

From the very start, the narrative is clunky and awkward. In fact, the opening paragraph, instead of engaging my interest as opening paragraphs should, is one of the most tedious I have ever read. It is far too long and consists of random details and facts strung together like a stream of consciousness with no clear connection between one sentence and the next. Other than that they all in some way pertain to a protagonist that readers are not even given a chance to become interested in. From there, the book’s writing remains consistently poor, making it feel more like a first draft that an edited novel. The dialogue is often laughable, feeling forced and cliché, and weird metaphors and comparisons are common throughout.

The characters are also severely underdeveloped and flat, the protagonist, Daniel Fisher, taking the cake on this one. He is supposed to be a saint, one of the lamed vav tzadikim, a purely righteous person; but the author does not pull this off well. In his defense, it’s a difficult thing to attempt, given that a purely righteous person doesn’t have much room for complexity; yet Fisher is just plain boring. The secondary character, Rana, is at least somewhat interesting, with an incredible magical ability she never knew she possessed. It’s no wonder the story focuses more on her than on Fisher.

While the writing itself was a defining factor in my inability to enjoy the book, the story itself is fairly intriguing, though not nearly as complex as I had thought and hoped it would be. The use of the lamed vav tzadikim and the inclusion of various demons and angels from Jewish lore, such as Ashmedai, the king of the demons, made for an interesting fantasy story, and there were times when I found myself curious as to what would happen next. If one could ignore the writing, the dialogue, and the characters, the story actually has a lot of potential, and I might even recommend it. I myself am curious to know what happens next in the trilogy, though not so curious enough to continue reading it.

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