- The Gardens of Almhain
- By: Laura Mallory
- Rating: 3 (out of 5)
I haven’t done any book reviews for months, I know; life exploded a while back and I’m still figuring out the new arrangements. I’m still reading, of course, and there’ve been a few books that I considered reviewing fully, but time and circumstance left me defaulting to the Kindle tweet-length reviews. This one, however, got in my head enough that it needs a fuller review.
I finished this book last night, and my first instinct (which I tweeted) was to give it four stars. I knew it had editing problems (many), but the story kept me involved enough that I basically ignored them. As soon as I put down my Kindle, however, I started to wonder if I may have judged too soon. Things that I hadn’t really noticed in my quick read came back to my attention, encouraging more confusion.
The Gardens of Almhain is a stand-alone epic, and this format, while it first impressed me (yay, no sequels!), ultimately does a disservice to the story. In the effort to keep such a grand scale idea contained within one volume, many opportunities are missed. Characters have good bones but only a small amount of flesh, and certain aspects of the plot are ignored or elided in the process of compacting the story.
One of the major issues I have with the story is its magic system and how that’s employed. The female protagonist is an extremely powerful mystic (as they are called) but she’s essentially a pacifist due to upbringing and PTSD issues; she gets to defend herself once or twice, and she manages to hold back the tide of, essentially, the apocalypse for a while, but it’s established as inevitable regardless of her interference, and she’s basically in a coma when that happens. The male protagonist is established early on to be “special,” and while the details are slow in coming, the reader knows far more about this than most of the characters, including him. And while he comes to his power at the climax, he never gets to exercise it.
The author’s decision to make her primary characters magical without letting them actually employ their powers in any significant way is either genius or madness, and I find myself perplexed. The way the story is structured, the protagonists’ magic is designed to be of use only after the action is completed. There’s something subversive in that idea, giving the heroes magic powers that are, while not irrelevant to the plot, mostly ineffectual. At the same time, it could easily be read as a failure on the author’s part, wanting her heroes to be super-special but not really allowing them to employ their specialness.
Part of the issue, I suspect, is that this is a destiny tale. I typically loathe destiny tales, but in this case, the references were subtle enough that they didn’t overwhelm the plot into a bullet list of Heroes Must Do X at Y Time. Towards the end, it started becoming more direct and confining to the plot, but there really wasn’t a sense of This Is Your Destiny as much as a certain bemusement as the characters are carried along by the tide. In the great failure of most destiny tales, ultimately, the characters have no real agency or impact on the events in which they take part.
At the end, in another possible genius-or-madness move, the protagonists literally have no effect on the battles leading to the climax; the final battle itself is a fight between the gods who started the whole mess, while our heroes just sit and watch from the comfort of their magical protective bubble. The goal, at that point, really does seem to be for them to witness the epic battle and (I presume) keep that in mind as they magically go forward with whatever happens after the book ends, hopefully not to repeat the failures of the past. I kind of can’t imagine a writer actually writing that ending without the realization that her heroes are doing nothing, so I have to assume that it was intentional. Is it effective? I don’t know.
I think that this book would fare better as a longer tale, maybe not a trilogy but at least a duology; it needs more space to fill in the many blanks left behind and to further develop the characters and their intentions. I want to know more about the Gardens, and the villain’s history. I want to know why the story needs two primary assassins and thousands of others that ultimately do nothing. I want to know more of Dunak and Argenta and the kingdoms’ history. It needs more detail to help the reader understand why the characters can do nothing (or very little) and still be significant to the plot. There’s the bones of that, I think, in the focus on having the land be the ultimate power and protector, and our heroes subject to it. There could be an interesting argument made about the actions of humankind and its effects (both significant and insignificant) on the greater existence, on the need for humans to be conduits but not saviors.
Do I think the author realizes this theme? I suspect not, but I could be wrong. More likely is it’s weak storytelling that just happens to have run to an unexpected theme (which happens often, in stories, weak or strong). I read it, and at the time I enjoyed it and found the characters worthwhile. It’s kind of a fluff book masquerading as an epic, but there’s a potential there for it to be more.
I think, ultimately, I may drop this to three stars based on poor execution, but give it a half-star for potential. Pity I can’t be so nuanced with Kindle ratings; some of these books could really benefit from a more thorough review.