The Cranky Old Reader

I'm a Goodreads refugee, looking for a new home. Old books for children, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and humor are my main areas of interest. I've little interest in books that were written after 1975 or so, and prefer books that are older still. There are, however, a few still-living authors that I respect.

The Wizard Lord (The Annals of the Chosen, Book 1)

The Wizard Lord: Volume One of the Annals of the Chosen - Lawrence Watt-Evans In a fractional rating system I'd give this a strong 3.5.I liked it - quite a bit - and was sorry to see it end. On the other hand, I'm glad that it ended relatively decisively. Cliffhanger endings annoy me, unless the next installment is immediately available.I'm not going to do an extensive review, but there are a few things that I want to talk about. There may be (will be) some spoilers here. You Have Been Warned.First, a general note: am I the only one who perceives a point at which LWE books changed? It seems to me that about the time that the Ethshar series was dropped (and yes, it's back now, and I'm very glad), there was a major change. I don't know what the cause is, but the new books (The Obsidian Chronicles and The Annals of the Chosen series, and I'd put Touched By the Gods into this category as well) are considerably longer than the earlier novels - not just the Ethshar ones, but all of them - as well as darker. There's less humor as well, which I frankly miss.Okay, on to TWL in particular:I have a problem. The thing that I've always liked best about LWE's books - and it's a quality shared by very few other writers, Roger Zelazny being the only one I can think of at the moment - is that his protagonists are both sensible and intelligent. Far too many writers, (particularly modern ones) fall into the "stupid hero" cliche.How can I put this? It's like...well, slasher movies come to mind, as well as a lot of older horror movies. Time after time, the characters (usually teenagers about to have sex) decide to do things that are totally ^@%#ing stupid. As soon as they decide to go to the old haunted house for a party, or the old abandoned summer camp where a maniac killed everyone twenty years ago, or whatever, all you can do is smack yourself on the head and scream "IDIOTS!".But most LWE protagonists take intelligent precautions, and the precautions work - at least somewhat. Unlike 99% of genre heroes, they're believably smart (although not obnoxious about it), and do what I'd bet most readers would do in the same situation. That's incredibly refreshing.Maybe you could call it realism.LWE protagonists are also sensible and have a basic sense of common decency. They're not perfect - in fact, they are more human than most genre characters - but they're not liable to fits of lunacy and stupidity.SPOILER (one more time, just to be safe)Now, Breaker in TWL is a fairly sensible and extremely decent person. No question about it. But I found myself hitting myself on the forehead relatively early on, when he was told that the Leader had said that the people killed by the Wizard Lord had been rogue wizards. The idea of corrupting the Leader seemed incredibly obvious to me, a completely predictable flaw in the Wizard Lord/Chosen system. And when Breaker and the others found out that the victims hadn't been rogue wizards after all, but innocent people, it was simply stunning to me that they didn't even consider the possibility that the Leader had betrayed them. Now, if the Leader had been with them at the time, and had done some tricky things to throw them off the scent, perhaps that would have been believable - although just barely. But he wasn't with them yet. And in any case, the other Chosen are resistant to his power of persuasion.For the rest of the book I kept expecting (and hoping) that in fact the Leader would turn out NOT to be a traitor, not because he was a likable character (he wasn't), but because otherwise the book would be simply too predictable.I'm not asking for an O. Henry sort of surprise, of course. In the old days, at least one editor used to call that a "tomato surprise". But I WAS expecting that there would be plot developments that I couldn't see coming; that there would be something new.Please note that I'm not claiming any particular intelligence. My point is that almost all other LWE books HAVE surprised me, in the sense that I found things in them that I didn't anticipate. Not so in TWL.I'll take a moment to repeat that it was well written and enjoyable, because I'm afraid that I'm sounding very negative. There were a number of issues that I hoped might turn into unexpected plot points, but they didn't. True names, for example; I thought they might turn out to be more important to the plot than they were, given the degree to which they were featured. I hoped that there might be something unexpected in the interaction between the abilities of the Chosen, maybe. The ler were another possibility for unexpected plot twist. Unfortunately that didn't happen.[Side-note: I wonder if the idea of the ler was at all inspired by Shinto?][Another side-note: am I the only one who thought of Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series while reading TWL? Not that the writing is comparable (I don't care for much of Anthony's works, particularly his later stuff - it's kind of icky, unlike all LWE books except the Worlds of Shadow series), but the idea of a replaceable group of relatively ordinary people taking on archetypal roles which are reinforced with magic is similar. Come to think of it, in the first IoI book (On A Pale Horse) the hero was tricked into taking on the role of Death - and, of course, Breaker was tricked into becoming the Swordsman.]Another point which bothered me was Breaker's decision to give the Leader a year to resign his role, and to remain silent about his treachery in the meantime. This wasn't totally unbelievable, not in the way that his failure to consider the possibility of the Leader being a traitor was, but it did seem surprisingly stupid. By not telling the other wizards that the Leader was a traitor, Breaker A) didn't let them know that their Wizard Lord/Chosen safeguard system had broken down in an obvious way (which is particularly odd since he was arguing that the system was broken and should be ended), and B) gave the Leader a year to kill him, which once again seems an obvious choice for the Leader to make (I'm guessing that it will be the subject of the next book in the series). Breaker KNOWS that the Leader is both willing and able to have others kill on his behalf, and is completely evil; he also knows that the Leader has a magical ability to persuade others. What's more, he knows that he'll be taking away the things that the Leader values the most: his magical abilities, his palace, and his slave girls. What does he THINK the Leader is going to do? This is...not believable. I really don't want to call it "stupid"... Breaker was obviously in shock from his first experience of killing a human being, so maybe that excuses him. But it's not something I would have expected from an LWE character. So in that sense, I suppose, it IS a surprise to me. But not a good one.A few random notes: the character of Speaker in particular was quite interesting and well-done. So was the Beauty. The Archer was a bit flat, the Scholar a little less so (the concept of his being unable to remember untruths is a very interesting one; I have a sneaking suspicion that there's a logical flaw in it somewhere, though). Seer wasn't bad, although her chickening out at the last minute didn't quite make sense; the horror of the Dark Lord's fastness needed to be emphasized more, in order for her withdrawal to be believable. In fact, the whole endgame of the book seemed a bit rushed. It was also unusually dark and cynical.Which I suppose is true of this review. I'm sorry about that; I really DID like the book. It's just that my standards for an LWE book are a bit higher than for books by most other modern writers. He's one of my three favorite modern genre writers.Update: I just re-read the book, and I have to say, sadly, that it really doesn't wear well. Lawrence Watt-Evans' best quality has always been the intelligence and common sense of his protagonists, and the treachery of a certain character is just so incredibly obvious that I simply can't swallow it; it was bad enough the first time I read it, and it just gets worse every time I read it.And that's not because I now know the "surprise". That was painfully obvious the first time. It's just that the protagonists keep ignoring the obvious, and that's irritating. Nor does LWE do anything to make their stupidity understandable; if magic is clouding their minds (although it shouldn't be, according to the internal logic of the book itself), that should have been foreshadowed at the very least. But it isn't.Lawrence Watt-Evans is, as I've said, one of my favorite modern writers. He still is. And maybe that's why my initial take on this review was to go easy on him; I want him to have a lot of success and write a lot more books. But The Wizard Lord is NOT the kind of book I want to see from him. This, Touched By The Gods, and his Reign of the Brown Magician are his weakest books. I want to see more in his Ethshar series, and his Lords of Dus, and the War Surplus series. Fortunately he's been doing more Ethshar, and I'll continue to read it eagerly. It's as good as ever. But I really hope not to see more books like The Wizard Lord.A writer should never abandon his strongest suit, particularly when it is so special and rare as Watt-Evans'. His publishers may be pushing him to write "dumb" (or not, I don't know), but the revival of his Ethshar series shows that there IS a market for books about intelligent, practical people who are able to use that intelligence effectively and have it work.In a fractional rating system, my current rating of the book would now be 2.9...and falling.

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