Once there were three worlds, each with their own human species. Then, fleeing out of the void came a fourth species, the Charon. Desperate, on the edge of extinction, they changed the balance between the worlds forever. Karan, a sensitive with a troubled heritage, is forced to steal an ancient relic in repayment of a debt. It turns out to be the Mirror of Aachan, a twisted, deceitful thing that remembers everything it has ever seen. At the same time, Llian, a brilliant chronicler, is expelled from his college for uncovering a perilous mystery. Thrown together by fate, Karan and Llian are hunted across a world at war, for the Mirror contains a secret that offers each species survival, or extinction!
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Being an avid reader (listener) of fantasy books, I've grown to expect certain tropes. They don't NEED to be applied, they're just classic storytelling elements that have worked in the past. Tried and true, as it were. Sometimes effective authors can turn those tropes on their head and create shocking endings or amusing reversals of expectations. In any event, Ian Irvine sets up a massive amount of commonly used tropes early on in the book that come to absolutely no payoff, ironic or not. Reading this book is like feeling a sneeze coming on, then having nothing happen. I understand that this is the first novel in a series of, like, four, but the first novel was so off-putting that I really don't want to go on to the next one.
For example: early on in the novel, we're told that one of the main characters has a sort of empathic magic; able to sense the feelings of others and project her own feelings into the minds of others. At no point during the story is this talent used in any way that would benefit her. In fact, she becomes a complete liability precisely due to this magic. What's more is that during the first act of the novel, she's constantly ridiculed as a useless member of the Fantasy Quest until she finds herself alone. Here we might expect that hitherto useless magic to become a boon to her survival. Perhaps she could project feelings of pacifism onto her pursuers. But no. That doesn't happen. Instead she becomes Chuck Norris, Houdini, and Davy Crockett all rolled into one and her magic is never really used. And the only time her talents aid her in any way is a newly discovered spell that we're never told about until she thinks to use it. It almost seemed like the author was making things up as he went along.
In a similar vein, the author also gives us another protagonist, a master storyteller and historian. Early on we're given the impression that he's somewhat naive and short-sighted, and that his talents would only serve him in civilized areas. Normal fantasy logic would indicate that his story-telling abilities, while unused and undervalued at first, would come in handy later on. Maybe some oft-ignored bit of trivia would aid in solving a puzzle, getting our heroes out of a nasty scrape. Perhaps he would know some language many others don't, and be able to talk his way into getting aid from an unlikely source. He seemed to have an eidetic memory, maybe he'll be really good at memorizing and interpreting an old journal they find. But none of that ever happened. Instead nothing happened.
Well, nothing that's set up in the beginning of the book, at least. He's completely useless at the beginning of the book and he remains completely useless at the end of the book. Nothing changes. He doesn't learn how to defend himself, his talent affords him nothing of surpassing helpfulness, and every moment of heroism he has could be described as An Ordinary Person in an Extraordinary Situation. There was no reason for him to be a scribe or a storyteller at all. He could have been a janitor for all the help his on-the-job skills gave him.
Also, there seems to be a theme of People in Charge all being huge, manipulative jerks. They all act like entitled teenagers, lying, whining, and imposing their will upon people with less bullishness they they. Again, none of them seem to learn a lesson on civility towards their subordinates, even when faced with extraordinary evidence of their own failings.
My final complaint would be that the action never lets up. Normally that would be a good thing. David Gemmell, Brandon Sanderson, and Joe Abercrombie are all authors whose books have high levels of action, and I enjoy all of them. The key difference is that they're all experts at building up tension and releasing it with a climactic action scene. This could be done chapter by chapter, it could be done over a series of chapters, but the point is there must be a "room temperature" for the action scenes to have any impact. In this book, we're given two or three chapters of exposition, then a chase ensues and literally DOES NOT STOP until halfway through the book. After a brief respite, it starts up again and doesn't stop until the end of the book. Since the characters are so busy running around back and forth, they're given scant opportunity to talk, think, or grow in many ways. They become one-dimensional archetypes of The Cold, Mercurial Warrior Woman, The Clumsy, Effeminate Scribe, or the The Ruthless, Conflicted Wizard.
It's not all bad. There are some moments of high suspense. And I did find myself warming to the male protagonist, who remained naively well-meaning throughout. At the end of the book, though, no one's grown (unless you count going insane), no one's learned anything (in a cosmic, game-changing kind of way), and the balance of power - which was ridiculously unbalanced to begin with - retained the status quo from beginning to end.
I really wanted to like this book. I seem to be currently waiting for the next installment of 3 or 4 different series. I was looking for a series of books that were already complete, and this story looked like a good one. I listened to the preview before downloading, and the narrator seemed to have a good voice, and I was excited to get started.
Unfortunately, I listened through this story, and never seemed to get into it. I kept listening, hoping it would get better as many books do, but it never did. Initially the story seemed to have promise. I liked both the characters of Llian and especially Karan. But soon Llian began to seem like a spoiled kid, and I lost interest in his part of the story. I continued to like Karan, but her story seemed jumbled and tedious. In one scene she is being chased by creatures through a swamp. The description of her struggle goes on forever. Just when you think it can't go any longer, she is suddenly free and the story takes up days later. Another thing that lacked was the magic in the story. Some sort of mind fighting between the characters that made little sense.
The last thing I didn't care for was the narrator. While I initially thought this would be a strength of the book, I soon found out I was wrong. Cartwright has a decent voice that was initially pleasing to listen too, but I started to notice that he continually stopped to swallow, and make noises that seemed like he was licking his lips. It became very distracting. I have never heard anything like it before in an audiobook.
Overall, this book had promise, it just never seemed to fulfill it.