Two things happen in ‘Warrior’. This isn’t hyperbole or writerly misdirection to hook you into reading more of this review: the second book in the ‘Wolfblade Trilogy’ could have been stripped down to a dozen pages or so and still served as a functional second act.
You’ll notice I said functional, not fun. What happens is what has to happen and what’s so obviously been coming since the prologue of ‘Wolfblade’, the first in the trilogy. Those critical scenes lay the foundations for a confrontation we don’t get to see here and which will presumably take up most of the third book’s equally ample girth.
But for almost seven hundred pages of ‘Warrior’, nothing happens. There is incident, but it’s all incidental. A more sophisticated writer might have used the biblical thickness of the novel to build tension and tighten the screws, instead of dwelling on the banal to the extent ‘Warrior’ does. Where there’s foreshadowing, it’s clumsy and overt. Where there’s an attempt at suspense, you can all but hear the cheesy musical sting.
Critically, the politics which makes up the central driving motivation for almost every character is simply boring. Modern politics might be sadly lacking in backroom backstabbings, but the medievally fantastical sort needs a bit of fizz and intrigue to keep it from turning into a slightly less sophisticated version of Prime Minister’s Question Time. It’s hard to persuade yourself that any of this really matters when writer Jennifer Fallon seems to treat it mostly as an afterthought and when even the rival schemers spend twenty-four years manoeuvring to negligible effect.
Which chronological shoe-horning allows me to smoothly segue into the odd structural choices which do little to distract from ‘Warrior’s slack, bloated through-line. The book starts eight years after its prequel, giving Marla Wolfblade’s children a little time to grow up and become characters rather than plot tokens, which does give the novel a suitable dynastic heft.
But it’s as though nothing else has changed in all those years. The nation of Hythria is still ruled by Marla’s wastrel brother, while the same political enemies are still skulking around the corridors of power, plotting and scheming to very little effect. The same people hold the same posts and about the only other sign of time passing is that Marla’s tally of husbands has risen to a black-widowy four.
It’s unclear why Fallon decided now rather than then was the time to pause and start her trilogy’s second act. The action focuses on a new arrival in Marla’s household, in the shape of the painfully emo Luciena, daughter of a Wolfblade husband who lived and died off-page between the books. Her childish defiance is instantly tedious and even as a political pawn she barely makes a ripple in the plot.
Her effect on Marla is more profound, making the matriarch look at herself and her actions in a new light, but barely touched upon which is a shame. I’d rather have spent more time examining the effect of Marla’s political streetfighting on her battered soul than spend precious pages on the next generation of Wolfblades.
The children. Not that they qualify for that title for long, as the tying off of the Luciena sub-plot abruptly catapults us forward another twelve years and Hythria remains locked in social and political stasis. Damin Wolfblade is Marla’s eldest and heir to the throne. A gaggle of cousins, siblings and milk-brothers surround him, of varying levels of cardboard-cutoutery, but he’s the real focus of ‘Warrior’.
Damin’s interesting. His Uncle Lernan, the nominal ruler who Marla has quietly usurped, is a hedonist, paedophile and sociopathic waste of space with little interest in keeping a fragile country from tearing itself apart and everyone around Damin is subtly terrified that the heir will turn out just the same. Fallon is playing her cards more carefully here and it takes a closer reading than the novel has really earned to establish exactly what Damin’s worth.
Unfortunately, it’s primarily Damin’s passivity which makes him inscrutable and when you can only observe your protagonist in the reflected glow of his peers’ behaviour, that tends to put the focus elsewhere. Just as with Luciena earlier in the novel, it’s the rest of the Wolfblade mob who wallow in the limelight.
While none of them have quite the same depth as Damin here or his mother did in the trilogy’s first book, the action does at least begin to pick up a bit. Towards the end of ‘Warrior’, we see genuine incident and while the plot developments may have been telegraphed, trumpeted and writ large in letters of neon fire, they’re nonetheless affecting. Here we see flashes of the uncompromising insistence on cause and consequence which made ‘Wolfblade’ so refreshing, but it’s too late, too late. It’s too reliant on the almost wilful blindness of the supposedly-canny Marla and her brood to the unapologetic lunatic they’re harbouring in their midst.
I enjoyed reading ‘Wolfblade’. The writing wasn’t going to win any awards, but it had an uncompromising streak which made it quite a break from the cosy norm. ‘Warrior’ retains the pedestrian prose, but little enough happens that its forerunner’s brutal pragmatism barely gets to rise above the murky surface. Even when it does, it feels a little like a rehash of earlier, better scenes. The offing of a (relative) innocent, the reluctant setting-aside of bloody vengeance in favour of political pragmatism, we’ve heard these songs before.
However, having ragged on ‘Warrior’ for close to a thousand words now, it’s necessary to caveat this review a little by noting that in the last few dozen pages, Fallon doesn’t merely recover her authorial mojo, but also teases at an action-packed, exciting final volume. So here I am, hoping ‘Warlord’ can live up to that promise and redeem this sagging second act.
(pub: Orbit. 709 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-653-5)
check out website: www.orbitbooks.net