by Tom Lloyd
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575077263
Date: 16 March, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Over the next few months, Gollancz are launching the careers of three very promising new fantasy authors - two of whom are "home-grown", Tom Lloyd and Joe Abercrombie, and the remaining one, Scott Lynch, is an American author discovered when Gollancz editor Simon Spanton chanced upon his weblog. All three writers are to be supported by admirably visible marketing campaigns and proof copies of their novels have been distributed well in advance of publication in an effort to whip up interest. This kind of promotion serves all fantasy fans, readers and writers alike and it's fantastic to see such support from Gollancz and parent company Orion.
As these major releases are staggered, someone has got to be first (to the slaughter?) and this honour has fallen to Tom Lloyd, the twenty-five year old contracts manager of a London Literary Agency whose debut novel The Stormcaller is issued this month. Lloyd is described as "extremely promotable" which is no doubt true. However his novel, the first in a series of five novels which will make up The Twilight Reign sequence, is an epic fantasy that I found myself having a complex reaction to.
The premise of the novel is a kind of coming of age story - our main protagonist Isak is a "White Eye" - a young man whose genetic distinctions mark him as faster and stronger than his peers. This is a youth destined for things far greater than he could ever have imagined. When we meet him, Isak is loathed by his abusive father and travels reluctantly with him in a wagon train of gypsy-like traders, living life on the open roads. His favoured companion is Carel, a retired mercenary who was once a "Ghost", a member of an elite regiment of guards assigned to Lord Bahl, the leader of the Farlan tribe of which Isak and his kind are descended. Cut to Bahl himself, a huge character set against brooding skies and gathering clouds. Bahl (also a white eye) flickers between protagonist and antagonist - an ambiguity which I found unsettling as reader. Nevertheless the introduction of these two main characters initially works upon us very strongly - Isak's frustration and barely controlled temperament is solidly depicted. He is, it seems, an exciting and excitable character alongside which we witness Lord Bahl's power, grand and operatic, and his mournful soul is laid bare to us early on the novel - though this part of his personal history is woefully undertold and undersold by Lloyd. There is then, in the opening pages of The Stormcaller, a reasonably sharp sense of both character and situation - what is lacking though is an equally sharp sense of setting and plot.
In a series of rapid fire events that the reader barely has time to absorb, Isak is somehow catapulted into the presence of Lord Bahl and proclaimed his "Kraan" or heir. This major happening becomes the bedrock of the novel - but as a foundation it proves weak, for Lloyd seems to barely have control over the story he is telling. Though there are some credible individual segments and commendable set-pieces throughout The Stormcaller, they do not mesh together at all well and the inevitable result a woeful lack of momentum, a disparate and confused plot which results in a leaden novel that utterly fails to sweep its readers up and carry them along for the ride.
Let me expand on what I mean here - early on in the book Lloyd introduces us to Aracnan, a mythical and immortal creature sent by someone (the gods?) to collect Isak and take him away (to Bahl?) - a task, incidentally, that he singularly fails to accomplish, but to which there strangely appear to be no consequences, good or bad. As an isolated scene this works well enough, I suppose, but Aracnan disappears from the story as quickly as he arrives and his reasons for being there at all are never properly explained. (He does pop up pages and pages later but does little more than have a drink with a mysterious stranger - and quite what that was all about went over my head, alas.) Similarly, early on Lloyd tells us of a dangerous mage who has defied the leaders of his order and made off with a crystal skull, one of a bunch of magical artefacts of great power. But this back-story, which one would think is setting up a major plot element to be resolved later on, gets lost in subsequent events and though a crystal skull does indeed turn up at the end of the novel, I'd pretty much forgotten all about it by then. Likewise a major battle against the Elves is fought a third of the way in, but its significance quickly trails away, leaving only the impression that is was included because the author wanted to put a bit of sword fighting in. Elsewhere a plot thread about a Vampire loose in the city wafts through the story - a big flag with a fat red herring on it. And at one point Lord Bahl goes off to visit a sick friend - er, why was that exactly?. This jagged, uneven and most often unresolved plotting makes The Stormcaller a book that I found very difficult to warm to - and this is frustrated by the fact that Lloyd is obviously a writer of talent.
I think part of the problem here is the kitchen sink nature of this novel - everything apart from that appears to have been thrown in to it and the result is a profusion of confusion. So much is thrown into the plot pot of The Stormcaller that the necessary elements are all but obscured. The geography of this world is not at all clear, nor is the social and tribal structure, nor its pantheon of Gods, nor the relations between the states, nor many other things. I'm not suggesting either that all these things be laid out explicitly for us, but because Lloyd chose to use them as integral parts of his world building, there should most certainly be more answers offered than questions raised. And Lloyd does himself no favours by harking back to old fantasy conventions. The seemingly token inclusion of dragons, enchanted armour, trolls, elves, a dark forest that one shouldn't stray into (another dead-end plot thread), rangers and suchlike, rather than marking his work as a fresh new approach to Fantasy, merely drag an otherwise spirited attempt at a genre work into Tolkeinesque cliché. It would have been a far better choice had Lloyd referred to his elves by some original name and not made them elves at all. As a threat and antagonist presence, these elves and their warmongering completely fail to have any impact on the reader. He should have called them "Red Herrings"!
It may be that many of these plot related dead ends are to be addressed in the subsequent books of this series - but that doesn't help readers of The Stormcaller, who may well find themselves trying to negotiate this sequence of loosely related events and situations and having a heap of trouble making sense of them. How is it that Isak so suddenly becomes an expert blacksmith capable of forging magic swords? Hitherto there had been no mention of his smithy skills! And what of the magic in this novel - Lloyd offers us only the barest of explanations of his magic system and we only get that two thirds of the way through. And [SPOILER ALERT], something I had BIG problem with -- What's with the death of Lord Bahl? Now I've no problem with a major character being killed off - old George R.R. Martin does it all the time, often ruthlessly, to great effect, and always for the good of his novel. However, I get the feeling that Martin wouldn't do this having already abandoned a major character (perhaps, in Lloyd's case, his best character) two thirds of the way through the piece, and I'm certain Martin would never allow such a death to occur offstage and away from the main action of the book. Isn't a main rule of successful writing "Show, Don't Tell"? Instead we learn of this monumental event via some misty-eyed dream of Isak's and it gave me the distinct impression that the author had deftly backed himself into a corner and simply run out of ideas. [END OF SPOILER ALERT] .
As I said earlier, my reaction to The Stormcaller was complex one. I really expected and wanted to enjoy this novel very much - instead, I found too many obvious flaws and omissions. Ironically the blurb on the back of the proof I read has proved all to prophetic... "inspired world-building, epoch-shattering battles and high emotion in a plot that will leave the reader gasping for more" ...and so it did - indeed I am still gasping for more plot! Perhaps subsequent Tom Lloyd novels will include one.