E. Rose Sabin, A Perilous Power (Tor Books, 2004)
Book reviewing can be a real test of courage sometimes. E. Rose Sabin's work has received rave reviews, her novel A School for Sorcery won the Andre Norton Gryphon award, her work is being compared to the Harry Potter books regularly, but -- gulp -- even with all that to speak for her, I just don't care for this book.
While you're getting ready to throw that rotten fruit, let me explain why:
My dissatisfaction started with the cover art (drawn by Vince Natale), which although beautifully drawn is dark, gloomy, and symbolic. Two twisted, evil-looking trees flank a mystical doorway into a bright land of blue skies and waterfalls, cascading near a rainbow-covered city. A young boy stands uncertainly in the wood just shy of the doorway. In a hollow of the tree to his left is a glowing cup; to his right, a similar opening holds a glowing egg, or perhaps a stone -- it's hard to tell. A pale moth hovers just above the open doorway. The title, in a lovely, swishy font that unfortunately is not used anywhere else in the book, flames brightly across the gloomy scene. To me, the artwork indicates a book with a distinct religious undercurrent, containing deep moral lessons and wisdom gained at a terrible cost.
The map (drawn by Jackie Aher), placed just before the first chapter, is simply drawn. The outer shape of the continent vaguely resembles a distorted North America, minus Florida. The names listed have an old-English feel: Northpoint Province, Southpoint Province, the towns of Sharpness and Amesley, the continent of Arucadi, and so on. My only quibble with the map is that the water surrounding the continent has too many names. For example, the west coast is noted as both "Sea of Good Faith" and "Treacherous Sea," although there doesn't appear to be anything to distinguish where "Good Faith" ends and "Treacherous" begins. (Actually, that fits the theme of the book nicely...)
The first chapter starts slowly. Trevor, the main character, does a lot of thinking about the past as he ambles to the bus stop: "[H]e'd graduated at the top of his class . . . he, not Maribeth, had received the grant from the provincial government . . . entitling him to enroll in the National University of Tirbat." Busy daydreaming, he misses the bus to Essell, where he was going to buy new clothes; rather than face his mother's wrath, Trevor decides to take a different bus to visit his Uncle Matt and Aunt Ellen in Sharpness. The switch to the Sharpness bus creates, as the chapter title promises, "A Change Of Direction" which affects the lives of people hundreds of miles away.
In chapter four, the action finally accelerates from a sleepy ramble to a rapid trot. Trevor disregards his friend's caution about a suspiciously friendly man at the bus station. The boys are drugged, robbed, and dumped in a strange section of the city. Consequence, action, cause and effect tumble rapidly over each other in a rising cadence. By the end of chapter four, it's clearly a good thing Trevor hasn't made it to the Gifted school; I suspect he would have been thrown out almost immediately for displays of disrespectful and flat out stupid behavior. Trevor eventually has to take responsibility for his mistakes, but at that point, it's far too late for things to ever be "fixed" completely.
Now that I've outlined as much of the story as I dare, I'll explain what I didn't like about it. First of all, I have a lot of trouble liking a main character who is displayed as such a complete jerk. There is little sympathy generated for any of the characters: Trevor is too headstrong and arrogant, Les just a touch too mild-mannered and "nice." Veronica, the witch that rescues them from jail, is so overbearingly snappy that Trevor's hostile reaction to her is understandable. Doss Hamlyn, the head of the Gifted Community in Port-of-Lords, comes across as stiff and arrogant.
Secondly, there is a surplus of setting and description. Amesley, Trevor's hometown, is detailed, as is Trevor's childhood escapades and the train ride across the country, but little of that information is relevant to the rest of the book, except a few lines of foreshadowing. Maybe I'm just prejudiced in favor of books that start fast, but I'd rather have started with the arrival in Port- of-Lords and learned all the rest through flashbacks and conversation.
Third, there's a sense that action is "forced" in spots. That mob at Uncle Matt's front door just doesn't ring true for me. Two of Trevor's Amesley neighbors, within hours of their arrival, stir up a hostile crowd to march on the home of a peaceful resident. It's too fast. Overnight, perhaps -- but not in the time it takes to make and eat dinner.
And finally, there's that strong moral/religious undercurrent that I mentioned. Les' gentle nature flattens the character into a moral signpost instead of a real person. Les' romance with Miryam feels like it comes from a Harlequin book: "He couldn't let himself care for her, yet he knew he did care, very much." I actually groaned when I read that line.
I found the ending deeply unsatisfying and manipulated -- I won't spoil the ending of this book by saying more.
Now -- hold onto those squishy tomatoes just another moment, folks -- the good bits. The writing is unquestionably solid. Rose Sabin has a lovely hand with arranging words and evoking moods: "High above their heads . . . hung immense chandeliers . . . aglitter with dazzling tiers of electric bulbs and sparkling crystal reflectors." I cut several sentences together rather freely for that quote to emphasize Sabin's description of a vast, busy space brilliantly and harshly lit from above. Sabin definitely knows how to paint a picture with words, and knows exactly what her world looks like, something I wish more authors could boast.
A minor point that I really liked was the page numbers. Mimicking the beginning title page, each number is set in the center of a small, grey rose. I'm a sucker for little touches like that.
Even though I complained, above, about specific points in the book, I think the overall idea is good. There's a definite plot line and side plots that weave back into the central theme nicely. Mechanically, technically, the book is sound, and I can understand how many people love her work. I'll keep an eye on Sabin as she continues writing -- I believe she's another example, like Rosemary Edghill, of a talent that will improve with time and experience into a really good read.
In the meanwhile, I'll set A Perilous Power on the bookshelf . . . and leave it there.
E. Rose Sabin's home page can be found here
Tor Books' home page is here
Jackie Aher, the map artist, has worked on projects for many clients, from bar guides to Midkemia maps for Raymond Feist. There is no cohesive Web page available for her work at this time.
Vince Natale, the cover artist, has created book covers for many major publishing houses, such as Random House and Harper Collins. Some information on Natale can be found here