Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review - Valkwitch

Valkwitch – Michael L Watson

Having now self-published, I thought I should do the decent thing and give other struggling authors a chance to get noticed by reviewing their work and raising their profile.
I was immediately drawn to the cover of this book and the sample hooked me enough to give it a whirl.
Here is the blurb:
I want to hear your version of the beginning, oh master bard. Let’s hear about the time before the titles and plane-shifting. When I was just…me.”

Life and Death. Fire and Water. Light and Shadow. Air and Earth.

Together, the eight elemental forces were used in the creation of the world. Now, separately, they seek to unmake it. To do that they need agents to carry out their designs. Thus, the Elements offer a pact to anyone willing to listen and the terms are simple: power for service.

Those who accept have become heroes and villains, men and women of legend. History and myth are littered with tales of their deeds, while the face of the world is scarred by their successes and failures in equal measure.

For Tyrissa, such stories reside solely in within the pages of a book. While she feels the call of a more adventurous life, she reins in the urge and settles for ownership of the immense evergreen forests of her homeland. As much as she may dream of greater things, it seems she wasn't meant for a life beyond her current reach.

But such stories have a certain way of unfolding, and Tyrissa will find herself drawn into the long-simmering elemental conflict in a way she never quite imagined.

Valkwitch is the beginning of an epic fantasy saga that stretches across a fracturing world and into realms beyond.
I have mentioned it before in my review of Anthony Ryan’s “Blood Song,” there are some authors who you know you are just going to enjoy. Their style of writing just feels comfortable and effortless. I felt this with Robin Hobb and I felt it with George R R Martin.
The opening of Valkwitch gave me a very similar feeling. The prologue was good but it was the first chapter I loved. Michael does a great job of easing the reader into his world and introducing his main character Tyrissa along with her brothers. The dialogue feels organic and the story-telling natural.
It is something that is rare and I devoured the first few chapters eagerly.
Tyrissa is your standard fantasy character: She dreams of a better life and for adventure beyond the small town she lives in. She is also going through the motions in what is perceived to be a patriarchal society. Fortunately there is far more to Tyrissa than the standard setup. She is sure of herself but at the same time naive. One minute she speaks with authority on subjects and the next she is unsure and out of her depth. She s confident in her ability to fight but is also readily humbled. These are nice character traits as Tyrissa is neither arrogant nor condescending. 
The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag. Many characters drift in an out of the story with no real resolution. One can only assume that they are set up for future books, but it is a shame as you are not too sure what to make of some of them.
Olivianna for example, is a good character. She is the first lady that Tyrissa is told to protect in her new job and instantly sets about antagonising Tyrissa. The reasons for this are unclear other than the simple explanation that from where Olivianna comes from it is considered “sport.” It adds a nice layer of mystery to Olivianna and sets her apart from the other characters.
Kexan is also a prominent character. A skilled warrior he trains Tyrissa in becoming a more proficient fighter. Out of everyone (other than her family) he gets closest to Tyrissa, offering to train her and later working with her.
There is no antagonist as such. Tyrissa pursues Vralin but we never really get a sense of who he is, other than a puppet of the elements. Surprisingly, I did not mind this, in fact I found it refreshing.
Tyrissa’s brother, Lirian is a constant, but he is reduced to a minor role in fairness. Only featuring at sporadic times to make sure his sister is alright. This proves as a useful anchor for the plot, refocusing it and reminding the reader of all that has gone on.
Speaking of the plot, I feel this is where the novel is a little weak. Once the incident that sets Tyrissa is underway the driving force behind the story is a little lost. There were times where I found myself wondering (particularly in the first half of the book) exactly what Tyrissa was supposed to be doing. Her journey is less of a quest but more of a travel log. Tyrissa has a mystery to solve, but she does not appear to be in any rush to achieve her goal. It is more of a “wait and see” what happens situation. Every now and then she gets the urge to be proactive but quickly gives up at the first hurdle. This all changes when she meets Giroon the bard where Tyrissa learns a little bit more about who she has become.
Don’t get me wrong, Michael Watson’s writing is highly accomplished. In parts it is baffling that this is a debut novel as the prose is so well written and descriptive, but there are pacing issues. Quite often the strongest element of the writing i.e, the descriptive passages are also the weakest. There are times when far too much times is spent on describing a market place or city. As a result, all momentum of the scene is lost. It never becomes a chore to read, but sometimes you wish the pace was a little more direct.
Once the plot becomes clearer however, the pace of the novel increases. The action scenes are extremely well handled and I loved the idea of the Pact with their special powers. These are used extensively but never feel over done. They are also never used as a deux ex machina which is nice as all the characters are vulnerable. 
Michael unveils elements of the plot slowly and thoughtfully. There is a subtlety to his writing that even most established authors would be proud of. To achieve this so early on in his career makes me envious.
All of these builds to a huge climatic showdown. Michael does well to avoid rehashing earlier confrontations with Vralin and provide the reader with something new. Whilst the story line concludes in a satisfactory way, there is a real sense that the story is just beginning.
Overall then, I enjoyed Valkwitch. The writing is excellent and the idea fresh and original. Apart from the pacing issues early on in the novel and the seemingly constant merry-go-round of characters entering and departing the story with no real resolution I would be given Michael debut novel top marks. I am certainly looking forward to the second book.
My rating: 8.3