Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review: The Four Forges by Jenna Rhodes

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"What is that?"

"It's a girl!" Nutmeg told him. She began to fall over under the weight, and her brothers dove to catch both the sodden rags and their sturdy sister. Nutmeg sat down on her rump as Garner drew the tattered blanket away from her burden.

" a girl." He blinked.

"She was on a pile of sticks in the river and I catched her." Nutmeg declared. "It was all broken up and she could barely hang on, but I catched her, and now she's mine."

Lily joined them, smoothed Nutmeg's tousled hair from her face in a quick check to make sure she was all right, then bent down to see what Nutmeg had rescued. Her hand touched cold skin. "She's alive," Lily said, "but only barely." She traced her fingers about the other's face, gently lifting the tangled hair from her eyes and mouth and shapely ears, then caught her slender wrist, where cruel bracelets bit into her skin, gashing them, and the pain of her touch made the child blink for a moment at her before succumbing again to the darkness. Lily caught her breath. "And she's a Vaelinar and a slave."

~Excerpt from The Four Forges by Jenna Rhodes

I picked this book up months ago, mostly on the strength of the cover. I've been kind of inundated with paranormal romances lately so I was looking for a high fantasy epic to read in-between all the vampires and werewolves. The only problem with "The Four Forges" is that I'm not entirely sure what I ended up with.

"The Four Forges" is a weighty book, weighing in at six hundred and eleven pages, though it is surprisingly light on content. The idea that fuels the book is the story of an elven race known as the Vaelinar who are magically transported to the world of Kerith through a cataclysmic event of unknown origin. The Vaelinar are the only people on Kerith who have magic since the war of the magi and as such they are feared and mistrusted throughout.

The specific storyline of the book is harder to nail down since there are so many threads that never fully come together. We have not one, but two main characters who don't remember their past lives and a war brewing between at least three different factions. In the center of it all is the Farbranch family; a family of "dwellers," who I would assume to be dwarves in conventional fantasy fiction.

I'm kind of at a loss as to how to review this book. There were times when I liked it. I liked the Farbranch family since they were the only characters of the book that I felt were given any life. But at the same time, only a few members were given much more than token dialogue and I had a hard time remembering just how many members of the family there were.

I guess the main problem I have with this book is that I'm not sure what it is trying to be. There is a lot of time spent with the Farbranch family while they go about the business of living their lives. Then there would be an event of sorts that leads the reader to believe the book is going to switch from it's leisurely pace into something more urgent-- only to go back to the Farbranches as they try to set up their lives in a new city.

I think I get where Rhodes was trying to go with the book. I can see threads she's trying to weave together-- small events that are supposed to have larger implications later on. But I think the story was too ambitious and not really executed that well. When I read any kind of fiction, the characters are the thing. I can live with gaps in the storyline (though I prefer not to) if I love the characters. But there were too many characters who were just not developed at all-- many of them main characters. And oddly, at other times, minor characters would be fleshed out quite well.

Another problem I had with the book is that so much of the background story was so vague. One of the main characters is a Vaelinar queen, known as the "Warrior Queen," though I don't know why; her story is really never told. We're given little hints now and then, but I never really got any clarity. The villains are also an enigma. There was one chapter written about the Kobrir, a notorious assassin, that was very interesting. But there was never any further development of that character either, which I found disappointing.

Part of me hates to criticize this book. If you go to Amazon and read the reviews, it gets mostly 4-5 stars, though there aren't that many reviews yet. I can kind of understand why some people would like it-- it has its moments. But I think Rhodes hasn't fully graduated from writing YA fiction to writing a full fantasy epic. There were times when I felt like I was reading a novel for young adults. The characters could be endearing but sometimes a little too sweet. Also, the one love story that exists in the book never feels developed into an adult relationship. Or maybe it's not the relationship that feels flat-- but the characters.

All in all, I felt "The Four Forges" is a book that has some decent ideas going on but needs some tighting up. If the book lost about two hundred pages and had some more character development, it could be good. But as it stands I think it just can't hold up to some of the better fantasy epics out there-- especially since I just got done reading The Briar King by Greg Keyes. If you want a good fantasy epic-- read that one.


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