My Rating: 1.0 / 5.0
Amazon Rating: 3.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.29 / 5.00
I decided to read this title because I received an ARC of the follow up book, Black Bottle, from Kristen at Fantasy Cafe.
Caliph Howl is a student, who seems suspiciously disinterested in graduating although he is more than competent. He spends a great deal of time having a rather un-romantic affair with Sena, a fellow student who is also a witch and was sent to the university to spy on him, because once Caliph leaves he will take up his seat as High King of Stonefield in the city of Isca. However, she has a secret mission of her own: to find the Cisrym Ta, an ancient text of powerful arcane magics.
When he finally accepts the inevitable and returns to Isca, Caliph finds that he must try to avoid a civil war whilst fighting to stay clear of those who want to manipulate him for their own political gains. He also uncovers some very disturbing secrets about how his kingdom functions. Meanwhile, a mysterious group begins to kill people and attempts to kill Caliph himself.
This book is bursting with imagination and originality, combining strange and unusual magic systems with steampunk technology and political intrigue. This all sounds very promising and rather refreshing as a change form the more typical fantasy offerings, but somehow it fails to gel into a cohesive novel.
I had several problems with my attempt to read this book, but I think the biggest is that there was far too little exposition for me actually understand and follow much of the detail: if there was ever a title that really needed a glossary and / or appendix, it is this one. There are multiple languages on show, although we very rarely find out what the words we see actually mean, which makes them irritating rather than interesting. I found this particularly strange because we did get foot notes for some things, but there needed to be many more. I am impressed at the imagination and attention to detail of creating several languages, but I am not impressed by having no idea what the characters mean or say using them. I found the same was true of the magic systems and even some of the technology. I do not need a twelve page thesis on every minor detail, but I do need some idea of how the world works. In general, I felt that Mr Huso’s boundless imagination was more of a hindrance than an advantage to my immersion in his world.
I had a similar problem with the language and writing style. Mr Huso likes to use obscure words, by which I mean words that have me reaching for the dictionary quite frequently. I am quite happy to expand my vocabulary, but when I discover that much more common words could be used to convey exactly the same meaning I start to get a little annoyed. I do not read fantasy novels so that I will be impressed by the author’s use of dictionary and thesaurus, but so that I can be transported to another world where I follow the exploits of some interesting characters. I am fairly confident that I have a relatively large vocabulary myself, as I do not normally need to use a dictionary whilst reading, so I felt that the book needed some serious editing to make the language much more accessible.
I also struggled with the plotting. I found it difficult to work out what were important pieces of information and what was simply detail. As with the world building, I felt as if information was being withheld from me and so I found myself confused about what was happening. It seemed as if important details were overlooked or excluded on purpose, so, for example, it took me ages to realize that Caliph was going to be the High King, because I had not read the book description before starting. There were also sections where the plot wandered around for no apparent reason, such as when Caliph went to Sena’s house. There were also a few ‘surprises’ or ‘twists’ that were sadly very predictable. Again, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that the editor had been too overwhelmed by the imagination on display and had forgotten that a story has to be understandable to be appreciated.
Finally, the characters left me somewhat cold, especially Caliph. Sena was much more ‘real’ and better drawn, but even she seemed to follow no particular internal logic, which I always find amazingly annoying. Caliph does not want to be King and yet does not take the obvious way out by delegating to those men who had been running his military and other branches of government before he graduated. This did not make any sense to me and simply made him a really bad king. There were several interesting secondary characters, but they were not developed at all and were often forgotten in a most disappointing fashion.
In short, about half way through I decided that this title was far too much work for the minimal enjoyment that I was getting from it and gave up. I just wish that along with all the imagination Mr Huso had displayed an equal flare for communication. I needed to be drawn into his world and carried along by the plot, not left confused and bewildered. Obviously I will not be attempting Black Bottle.
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