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October 2002
2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb
Bantam Press, Trade: ISBN 0593049616  PubDate Sept 2002
Review by John Berlyne
591 pages List price
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The front cover of Robert Newcomb's debut The Fifth Sorceress proudly sports the caption "The Epic Fantasy  of the Year". The press release tells us that the book provoked a "major bidding war" between the various New York publishing houses and that the reason for all this was simply that Newcomb's wife gave him a Terry Goodkind book to read and he liked it so much that in a Victor Kiam-like moment of epiphany, he decided to, well, not buy the company exactly, but rather to write his own fantasy novel.

As an anecdote this is all well and good, until (constant reader!) you spend the best part of a week ploughing through the stodgy and shallow fruits of Newcomb's labors only to realize you'd have been better off spending the time reading Goodkind's back list.

My beef here is not confined to the author. This book starts out well enough and Newcomb's approach remains fresh at least until the end of the prologue. What follows however is so bland and so padded that the major criticism here must be levelled at the book's editor, who was clearly at lunch a great deal of the time and has thus allowed what essentially reads as an early draft of a novel to reach the unsuspecting marketplace unclipped.

The basic plot is derivatively simple. The quaintly named Prince Tristan has come of age and must assume the mantle of the monarchy. He is reluctant to take on his responsibilities but his abdicating father and the council of wizard advisers are adamant that traditions must be followed. The kingdom of Eutracia has done things this way for all of three hundred years - ever since the end of the war with the now banished sorceresses - and the Paragon (the jewel which magically protects the kingdom) must be ceremoniously passed on to Tristan. The evil sorceresses meanwhile are across the sea, fiendishly planning an invasion to reclaim the Paragon and to kidnap Tristan's pregnant twin sister whom they intend to magically brainwash into joining their ranks. This is, of course, achieved with consummate ease - Eutracia is crushed (talk about being unprepared!), Tristan's family slaughtered and only he and the Lead wizard, one Wigg, survive. What remains is for Tristan and Wigg to find a way to recover both sister and Paragon, defeat the evil sorceresses and to restore order to the world.

That is basically it - albeit supplemented by some poorly camouflaged padding along the way. There is some background prophecy involved - Prince Tristan is (of course) "The Chosen One" whose magically endowed blood, it is foretold, will allow him to triumph over evil; there are the obligatory monsters and human hybrids including the sorceress's Minion army - they're basically Klingons with wings, and there is the magic system of this world which lamely comes across as little more than a few levitation tricks and some flashing 'azure' fireworks.

Were this condensed and refined there may well be the makings of a half decent (if derivative) story here. What we have instead is a six hundred page tome of which l would estimate seventy five per cent is written in long and tedious swathes of exposition. This endless repetition in which we are told so much and shown so little really does not make for great reading.

With careful and committed editing both reader and writer could have been served far better and my impressions of this weighty debut might have been very different. Its absence has given us a story populated with colorless characters - the Prince is a thirty year old man with the outlook and attitudes (and it would seem, the mental age) of a boy scout; Wigg struggles to be even one dimensional and the sorceresses themselves come over as mere leather clad dungeon sluts poached from some soft porn dominatrix flick.

There are flashes of worthy writing buried beneath these myriad obstacles - the assault on the palace is a fine sequence, but sadly and frustratingly such passages are nothing more than squalls on an otherwise becalmed ocean.

Editing might further have ironed out Newcomb's irritating and unnecessary stylistic ticks - Tristan's italicised expression "The insanity never ends" appears over and over again as does mention of Wigg raising his "infamous eyebrow" - perhaps the most exciting thing he does for the duration of the novel. The story doesn't need these embellishments any more than it needs the recurrence of "What Tristan saw next would remain lodged in his heart forever." This phrase, thinly disguised, is churned out again and again - "What Tristan saw next made his heart recoil.", "What Tristan saw next he would never forget.","What Tristan saw next took his breath away." Without the benefit of a blue pencil hard at work it soon becomes a case of  "What the reader read next caused him to fling this book out of the window."

It is rare you'll find me posting such a negative review - particularly for a debut work. I take very seriously the efforts writers go to in putting a novel together and to have a book published is a major achievement. At the same time, the sheer commercial cynicism involved when we are asked to fork out 10.99 for a novel that really isn't worth our money or our time simply cannot go by without comment. There are much better fantasy debuts out this year - try Jude Fisher's Sorcery Rising for instance. As far as The Fifth Sorceress is concerned I'd recommend you save your hard earn cash - unless, that is, you're in dire need of a hefty door stop.

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe