I’ve written a couple of episodes as I made my way through the first installment of a fantasy story called Legacy of the Stone Harp by James G. Anderson & Mark Sebanc. For closure, I thought I’d record my impressions now that I’ve completed the first volume.
I won’t be reading the second. Through the course of the first book I was sustained by intellectual curiosity: How many fantasy standards will they pack in? Will there ever be a meaningful female character? And most of all, How egregious a cliffhanger will the book end with? (For those new to these pages, I have a peeve about buying something that claims to have a story inside, yet actually only contains a fragment. I think most fantasy authors have completely lost the ability to create substories that fit within the larger arcs of their epics, and thus make the individual volumes of the series into enjoyable reads.)
Let’s look at how The Stoneholding: volume one of The Stone Harp performed on that last criterion.
In fact… not bad. There was actually a feeling at the end of the book that an important phase of the quest had been concluded, and a new phase would soon begin. The authors did a way better job of this than most fantasy writers do these days. So, credit where credit is due.
Except… actually the story reaches that point quite a bit before the book runs out of pages. We spend the last few tiresome chapters touring around the underground kingdom of the people of the hammer — a race of people who are shorter than surface-dwellers, renowned for their abilities as blacksmiths, and who are most decidedly not Tolkien’s dwarves. Really. How could anyone think that?
OK, everyone would think that. If you’re going to put Standard Fantasy Dwarves in your story, you may as well label them correctly. SFD’s are SFD’s, after all. Making them slender doesn’t change things. One temptation for me to carry on with the story: Who will they meet when they go into the forest in the next volume? I’m guessing SFE’s and the satisfaction of being right almost makes the toil worth it. But not quite.
Nearing the end of the book, having had more than enough of the guided tour of the dwarf kingdom, I found it difficult to finish out. On the last night I sat back in bed and sighed audibly before picking up the book. Only a few more pages to go. My sweetie chuckled. I picked up the book and dragged myself through the last pages, curiosity about the way it ended being my only fuel. If only the characters would stop being so stupid.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.
As a very long addendum I’ll attach to this episode my take on the score this story has racked up (so far) in the Fantasy Novelist’s Exam. That there hasn’t been a significant female character yet means that many of the questions remain open. Still, it’s a pretty damn impressive showing, pushing the cliché-o-meter right through the red and into the magenta.
Note: Those who created this exam suggested that if you answer yes to any of these questions you pitch in the novel and start over. I think this story is hovering in the 15-18 range right now.
- Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
Actually more happened in the first fifty pages than the following 200
- Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
Yes, and his best friend is one, too!
- Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
- Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
I think it’s safe to assume that’s how this will play out
- Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
The artifact is a sacred flame, but yes.
- How about one that will destroy it?
Why, there’s another artifact that, in the wrong hands…
- Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
- Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
I’m going to say ‘no’ on this one, until more characters actually show up
- Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
- Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
Probably not. I suspect there’s a bad guy behind the obvious bad guy, though.
- Is the king of your world a kindly king duped by an evil magician?
No. The guy that was duped was the son of the local ruler.
- Does “a forgetful wizard” describe any of the characters in your novel?
I think ‘incompetent’ is closer to the truth
- How about “a powerful but slow and kind-hearted warrior”?
- How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
- Do the female characters in your novel spend a lot of time worrying about how they look, especially when the male main character is around?
We’re still waiting for a significant female character.
- Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?
So far, no.
- Do any of your female characters exist solely to embody feminist ideals?
- Would “a clumsy cooking wench more comfortable with a frying pan than a sword” aptly describe any of your female characters?
There are peripheral characters who are like this
- Would “a fearless warrioress more comfortable with a sword than a frying pan” aptly describe any of your female characters?
There’s always hope for the next installment
- Is any character in your novel best described as “a dour dwarf”?
For the most part the pseudo-dwarves are a cheerful bunch, to the point where this particular batch embidies a flawless society where everyone is happy.
- How about “a half-elf torn between his human and elven heritage”?
I’d put money on pseudo-elves arriving later in the story (maybe they’re the ninjas!) but we haven’t seen them yet.
- Did you make the elves and the dwarves great friends, just to be different?
So many questions that would require reading the whole damn thing to find out.
- Does everybody under four feet tall exist solely for comic relief?
- Do you think that the only two uses for ships are fishing and piracy?
Landlocked so far, but there are oceans on the map.
- Do you not know when the hay baler was invented?
I’m not sure, but I’d guess that this highland culture is a little more realistic than most.
- Did you draw a map for your novel which includes places named things like “The Blasted Lands” or “The Forest of Fear” or “The Desert of Desolation” or absolutely anything “of Doom”?
Three maps with silly names, no ‘of Doom’
- Does your novel contain a prologue that is impossible to understand until you’ve read the entire book, if even then?
We’ll see. Much is unexplained
- Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?
At the rate they’re going, I’d be amazed if they wrapped this up in three volumes.
- How about a quintet or a decalogue?
That’s more like it
- Is your novel thicker than a New York City phone book?
It would be if it were bound in one volume
- Did absolutely nothing happen in the previous book you wrote, yet you figure you’re still many sequels away from finishing your “story”?
I get that feeling, indeed.
- Are you writing prequels to your as-yet-unfinished series of books?
Not that I’m aware of.
- Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?
They aspire to that title, I guarantee.
- Is your novel based on the adventures of your role-playing group?
I’m going to have to guess no. Otherwise they would have introduced more characters by now.
- Does your novel contain characters transported from the real world to a fantasy realm?
- Do any of your main characters have apostrophes or dashes in their names?
Not yet. We’ll see when they finally start their quest.
- Do any of your main characters have names longer than three syllables?
They do, but it’s an ethnic thing and they all go by nicknames, so it’s not obnoxious
- Do you see nothing wrong with having two characters from the same small isolated village being named “Tim Umber” and “Belthusalanthalus al’Grinsok”?
The authors seem pretty consitent on this score.
- Does your novel contain orcs, elves, dwarves, or halflings?
The dwarves are renamed, and we’ve seen hints of ninjas.
- How about “orken” or “dwerrows”?
- Do you have a race prefixed by “half-“?
- At any point in your novel, do the main characters take a shortcut through ancient dwarven mines?
They’re mysterious forbidden caves, that lead to a dwarven city. So, yep.
- Do you write your battle scenes by playing them out in your favorite RPG?
Doesn’t feel like it. More would happen if they did.
- Have you done up game statistics for all of your main characters in your favorite RPG?
I’m guessing no.
- Are you writing a work-for-hire for Wizards of the Coast?
Wizads of the Coast would not want this.
- Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawls?
So far the only tavern was for a kidnapping.
- Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?
I have no problem with that aspect of the story.
- Do your characters spend an inordinate amount of time journeying from place to place?
I suspect they will – they’ve taken long enough just to get started.
- Could one of your main characters tell the other characters something that would really help them in their quest but refuses to do so just so it won’t break the plot?
- Do any of the magic users in your novel cast spells easily identifiable as “fireball” or “lightning bolt”?
No. A lot of the magic centers around music, which is pretty cool.
- Do you ever use the term “mana” in your novel?
- Do you ever use the term “plate mail” in your novel?
I’ve seen references to armor, but not that phrase
- Heaven help you, do you ever use the term “hit points” in your novel?
- Do you not realize how much gold actually weighs?
I wonder. Is the golden harp supposed to be solid gold? If so, it would weigh a ton.
- Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?
I was not sorry to see Star Thistle exit the story; he seemed to exist solely so the authors could gush about how goddam wonderful he was. But at least he got winded.
- Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?
- Does your main character have a magic axe, hammer, spear, or other weapon that returns to him when he throws it?
There’s a magic sword that glows lurking in the plot somewhere – but the guy last known to have it hasn’t bothered mentioning it to anyone else. Odd. I doubt it would return if thrown, however.
- Does anybody in your novel ever stab anybody with a scimitar?
- Does anybody in your novel stab anybody straight through plate armor?
- Do you think swords weigh ten pounds or more? [info]
- Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?
I probably won’t read far enough to find out.
- Does a large portion of the humor in your novel consist of puns?
- Is your hero able to withstand multiple blows from the fantasy equivalent of a ten pound sledge but is still threatened by a small woman with a dagger?
Don’t know yet, but things seem to be setting up that way.
- Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?
Only if the arrow is carefully aimed to be nonlethal – which our two boys can do.
- Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?
We’ll see when they finally get on the road
- Do you have nomadic barbarians living on the tundra and consuming barrels and barrels of mead?
- Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer”?
The dwarves make mead, and it’s actually mead.
- Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
And one ethnically-endowed skill.
- Is the best organized and most numerous group of people in your world the thieves’ guild?
- Does your main villain punish insignificant mistakes with death?
I’m thinking… yes.
- Is your story about a crack team of warriors that take along a bard who is useless in a fight, though he plays a mean lute?
The main character is a bard. He’s adequate in battle, however.
- Is “common” the official language of your world?
No. One of the good guy’s advantages is understanding different languages.
- Is the countryside in your novel littered with tombs and gravesites filled with ancient magical loot that nobody thought to steal centuries before?
The jury’s still out on this one.
- Is your book basically a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings?
- Read that question again and answer truthfully.
It’s really not good enough for the comparison.