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Book Review: Savage Messiah by Robert Newcomb

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There has been a marked tendency in modern epic fantasy to feature more violent, more graphic narratives than one might traditionally associate with the genre. Terry Goodkind and George Martin, among others, have pushed the boundaries in this regard, although one could certainly argue that they are simply maintaining a tradition which can actually be traced to the original versions of fairy tales.

Given the violence and sexual undertones of many old tales of witches, magic, and the mortals who find themselves caught up in a world often beyond their understanding, it is difficult to fault modern authors who choose to incorporate similar sensibilities into their own work. The real question is whether they do an effective job of transporting their readers to a fantastic foreign land; whether they consistently prove capable of invoking the notion of the “suspension of disbelief.”

In that regard, Robert Newcomb’s Savage Messiah falls into the spectrum of the “pretty good” as opposed to “great.” It is the first book in a new series called Destinies of Blood and Stone. The series follows on the heels of a trilogy called the Chronicles of Blood and Stone (The Fifth Sorceress, The Gates of Dawn, and The Scrolls of the Ancients).

The prior series brought readers to the land of Eutracia and introduced them to Prince Tristan and his sister Shailiha, the “Chosen Ones” with magical blood who alone have the power to unite the apparently opposing forces represented by the competing orbs of the Vigors (seemingly beneficial) and the Vagaries (tainted and evil). In the third book Tristan’s evil half brother Wulfgar had tried to destroy him, but at the end of the day it was Wulfgar who was presumed dead. The kingdom had time for a measure of healing, but in the typical fashion of fantasy novels the peace won’t last.

The orb of the Vigors was damaged during the climactic struggle, and as it leaks magical energy it rains death and destruction across the land. Tristan’s magical blood has yet to return to normal, and consequently he cannot yet attempt to heal the orb. What’s more, the technique to deal with his enchanted blood has been lost. And it turns out that Wulfgar really isn’t dead.

Instead, he’s hanging out in a fortress on the other side of the Sea of Whispers. Here he conspires with the Heretics, the masters of the evil Vagaries who drive him to destroy both Tristan and the orb of the Vigors. With certain “forestallments” added to his blood, and with the use of new servants and weapons at his disposal, Wulfgar plans to finish the task. He sends a deadly assassin ahead of his invasion force to destroy Eutracia’s ruling council and all of Tristan’s trusted advisors.

Tristan and his friends must hurry to cleanse his blood of its enchantment and heal the orb. Their quest will be arduous and may prove quite costly to more than just Tristan himself.

This is the fourth book in a planned nine book series (as with Robert Jordan and Goodkind, modern fantasy no longer seems satisfied with the simple trilogy). There’s quite a bit of relatively graphic violence and Newcomb is clearly writing in the same basic vein as those authors I’ve already mentioned. The challenge is that the narrative simply isn’t as strong as some of the other books out there. Further, while the book is frequently quite engaging, some of the elements of the story seem recycled or somewhat forced.

For example, the regurgitation of Wulfgar – as the villain who just can’t stay dead – seems like a rather easy choice. It’s usually a bit more difficult to develop a plot in which the faces of the villains keep changing, and in which the real enemy is masked for a period of time (this is arguably true of Raymond E. Feist’s books, for example, and Martin has done a good job in his books of slowly developing a plot that still remains a bit shadowy in terms of the “real” threat). Janny Wurts’ War of Light and Shadow books are also far more intriguing in terms of how they develop the conflict between two brothers. It appears that despite Newcomb’s apparent desire for a nine volume chronicle, he doesn’t have quite enough plot to fill the middle, and consequently it seems stretched quite thin.

In addition, by limiting his characters’ decisions by virtue of their blood, he largely eliminates any element of personal choice from their decisions. While literature can often serve as a vehicle for discussing the reality of free will (or whether choice is largely the result of genetic predisposition), Newcomb’s narrative simply doesn’t offer as much as one would like in that regard. Finally, Newcomb seems quite intent on making his protagonist kill (or at least cause the death of) as many family members and loved ones as possible – one can only presume that the ones he hasn’t killed yet are being saved for later installments of the series. Tristan has killed a father, a son, a half-brother, and yes, has an opportunity to kiss a few more folks good-bye this time around. This sort of emotional abuse tends to become a bit tiresome unless it is handled with a deft touch, which seems somewhat lacking here.

The bottom line is that Savage Messiah is part of an epic fantasy with far too many recycled elements and not enough inventive creativity to rise all the way to the top. In a world where Martin, Wurts, Jordan, Goodkind, Tad Williams and others have really established some fairly high bars, I think Newcomb needs to do more to break from “the pack” in order to become one of the leaders. At the same time, Newcomb’s book also shows flashes of genuine brilliance, and should not be penalized too stridently for its missteps, as they do not prevent it from serving as a diverting foray into a bizarre fantasy realm.

Those wanting to explore the book on their own (as I certainly don’t suggest you take my word for anything) can visit Newcomb’s website, where the first six chapters are available online.

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