If you’ve been snooping around the internet on the blogosphere and places like Twitter in the past few weeks then you might be aware of Tome of the Undergates’ author Sam Sykes’ BRAVEST CHALLENGE. This challenge, issued to a number of fantasy bloggers, aims at putting reviewers/bloggers out of their comfort zone by making them read a book, chosen by Sykes himself, that he believes is different from the type of books the blogger usually reads and which he thinks they will hate. The blogger then reads and reviews (or attempts to do so) and as a result see whether the blogger is set in their reading ‘ways’. I was one such blogger issued with the challenge, and Sam picked David Bilsborough’s 2007 debut, The Wanderer’s Tale. According to him I tend to like fantasy that has ‘fast action, deep plot, characterization out the wazoo’ and The Wanderer’s Tale supposedly does those things badly. Though I’m not quite sure how to interpret ‘characterization out the wazoo’ I gladly accepted, both unsure of what I was getting into and excited about the prospect. Well, I’ve read Bilsborough’s book and, in acceptance with the terms of the challenge, have reviewed it below.
Nobody likes rawgrs. Call them hellhounds or demons, whatever you like - they’re a bad lot, and no good can come from stirring them up. Even those that were supposedly destroyed five centuries ago.
But if the lordly Peladanes are offering good money to anyone prepared to enlist in a quest to kill a rawgr that’s already dead, then who is Bolldhe to complain? The shiftless wanderer has spent the last eighteen years traveling the world and selling clairvoyant lies to gullible idiots, so why start worrying about moral integrity now?
Just think: ancient fortresses, glittering mountains; vast, dark forests; lands of giants, lands of fire and ice; lands never before visited by men or any of the other races inhabiting Lindormyn... As far as Bolldhe is concerned, the challenge is welcome and the sun again shines on his life.
On top of that, there is the bizarre matter of the priestly auguries about who Bolldhe really is. It’s not every day you find yourself acclaimed as the chosen one, the Rawgr Slayer - potential savior of the entire world. Yes, things are looking up for Bolldhe.
So out they set from the northern town of Nordwas, a motley crew of seven companions embarking on a sacred venture. Ahead of them lie weeks of hazardous progress through an increasingly desolate landscape, while each day fate confronts them with an array of weird creatures, huldres, elementals and malevolent spirits, embroiling them in perils unimaginable.
From what I gather, The Wanderer’s Tale was originally anticipated for its return to a style similar to that of Tolkien’s work while still keeping things original. Just as Sykes warned me, it does that badly. From the very beginning there are multiple problems with Bilsborough’s debut. The very first bit, the prologue, is a succession of confusing scenes which barely benefit the story. Then, when the main narrative starts the reader is presented with a slow plot that never seems to be quite able to kick off. Instead, the story drags along slowly with only a few, forced sequences at a faster pace.
In a way I can praise Bilsborough for his intention to write something a bit Tolkien-esque. There is an element of Tolkien’s work, beyond elves and dwarves, that has gone out of modern fantasy writing more and more. With all the gritty realism that has take over the genre, as great as it is, the wonder, excitement and fascination at discovering a new world or new places in it has often all but disappeared, and in this Bilsborough does manage to express that sense of admiration for something new and unknown. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make The Wander’s Tale a good book.
The problem is Bilsborough also suffers from trying to include discovery in his book. Very early on he is take with the old epic fantasy affliction of bringing in a new monster, new character or some other such element every time he needs to something to happen to his group of adventurers out on their quest. As with anything else, the first couple of times this is fine but after a while it gets boring, my annoyance for the practice stems from that - Bilsborough does it all the time. And probably the worst part in all this is the true big baddy isn’t actually present past the first few pages of the prologue.
Then there are the characters which, in keeping with the trend, are sorely lacking. Virtually none of them possess a personality that makes them truly interesting. No, they are all either stereotypes, one-dimensional or both. To give you a better idea of how bland these characters are: it took me a considerable amount of time, say two hundred pages, before I could easily remember which character was which. Characters are all about motives; if you don’t know why they’re doing it there is very little interest in knowing what will happen and things tend to not play out as well. Bilsborough seems to have completely forgotten this, essentially no backstory for his characters and even less motives. That is to say, he does provide motives but they are so impersonal that they don’t really count.
Let me explain that some more. In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo accepts to go on a quest to destroy the ring he already has a close family connection with the ring (through Bilbo) and he is willing to accept that eventually his life as he knows it will be changed if he doesn’t go. Well in The Wanderer’s Tale some of the quest is about an already dead evil lord that has yet to show any eminent threat - that the road to get to him is more treacherous than actually confronting him should give you an idea of how much of a threat he poses. Some of the characters are setting out just because that is what they do. Yes, you read that write, one of the peoples of Lindormyn spends its time mounting wars for the sake of wars and quests for the sake of quests. Other characters are dragged into this against their will and the rest have even more dubious motives. This is one of the most significant and frustrating flaws of the novel.
In the end, as much as I might want to recommend The Wanderer’s Tale to even a slim, defined portion of the fantasy readership, but I find myself unable to. What David Bilsborough set out to do might have been admirable if he hadn’t done such a botched job of it. The results of his labor is a thick book that reads slowly, boringly and without much else. If you do somehow slug your way through this novel and for some reason enjoy it (and I can’t think of any reasons why you would) then the second volume in The Annals of Lindormyn, A Fire in the North, is available. I personally don’t have the heart to even go see if things improve in this sequel but well on you to do so.
Now, to come back to the aims of the BRAVEST CHALLENGE, I’m not certain exactly what the results of the experiment point to. I did complete The Wanderer’s Tale and somehow managed to review it, as difficult as both of those tasks were. But I’m glad I did it. On to the other bloggers/reviewers to see how they fare...
My Rating: 2 out of 5
Reading Age: 14 and up (though really, with such a low rating, no age would be recommended)
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