- By: R. T. Kaelin
- Book 1 in the Children of the White Lions series
- Rating: 2 (out of 5)
I have read many, many epic fantasies. Most of them are mediocre. Some are more mediocre than others. This one, I should have treated as a drinking game – even though I don’t drink; it might have been more enjoyable.
The basic premise is: suddenly magical teen siblings Nikalys and Kenders find out that they are a) suddenly magical and b) their parents aren’t their parents. Their village is destroyed by an evil wizard, who kills their adoptive parents but the kids of course get away. Cue epic running-away, which is pretty much the rest of the book.
There’s a bit of a twist involving Jak, their “older brother” and the true son of their adoptive parents, who gets the usual cryptic message and package of unknown origin that should go to the Special Siblings. Eventually he catches up with them and they discover that, of course, said cryptic message has to do with the facts presented in the above paragraph, and the package ends up being a sword (which is pathetically obvious from the shape of the package when it’s first revealed.) Because you can’t have magical heroes without a magic sword. But that comes later.
Enter Broedi, a magical shapeshifting giant who just happens to be one of the mythical magical White Lions. He was (is?) a friend to the Real Parents, who were also White Lions. The White Lions were heroes granted special abilities by the gods. However, despite being a significant factor in the story, the author can’t decide how many White Lions there were originally (the number switched between eight and nine at various places in the book).
Broedi is, of course, the mentor figure, and of course nobody trusts him, especially after he infodumps the kids on their backstory. There’s a prophecy. The teens are Super Special Going To Save The World. Their Real Parents abandoned them when they were babies to protect them. Kenders can do any type of magic ever except she doesn’t want to, until she needs to. The sword goes to Nikalys, who also has super strength and speed except he can’t figure out how to use it. The sibs whine and angst over their heritage, but keep trying to get rid of Broedi – who has been nothing but helpful and is sworn to protect them and all the usual stuff – for about a third of the book. As near as I could tell, they were just being petulant teenagers who don’t want to be told what to do. Of course.
Now, I wanted to like Broedi, particularly as he’s the only competent member of the group for most of the book. Unfortunately, he’s such a blatant Noble Savage that the appropriation sticks out like a blinking neon sign. He’s a shapeshifter from a “mythic race” that’s distinctly tribal, his real name is completely unpronounceable, he’s got magically enhanced senses, etc. Add to this his role of Wise Man/mentor, where he’s aloof and condescending toward his charges, and hoards secrets like a dragon hoards gold. I get that the author is trying to dole out information slowly, but it’s so baldy obvious – not to mention being all tell and no show – that it undermines the entire Wise Man aura that seems to have been the intent.
Later on, we get random things happening for flimsy reasons. There’s a random hobbit who knows too much. The bad guy apparently stole his playbook from Wile E. Coyote. There’s a random plot jump to another part of the country to introduce Obvious Arab Stereotype Guy, who ends up captured by monsters, etc. Some of these involve completely laughable circumstances, such as Obvious Arab Stereotype Guy escaping the monsters by following the bad guy through a portal. He lands in a stable so he can conveniently steal a horse and tack and wander aimlessly until he randomly runs into the heroes. Finally, there’s a battle with the monsters where our heroes are rescued at the last moment by allies who aren’t supposed to be there. Literally. They’re all “well we were in the neighborhood even though we weren’t supposed to be in the neighborhood, so… lucky you?”
Half the characters in the book are magical and special for some reason or another. Far too many of them are magic users. For a place where mages are outlawed, there’s a lot of magical specialness bouncing around. And nobody notices, except once and even then they can’t find anything. This happens EVEN WHEN THERE ARE MYTHICAL MONSTERS INVADING THROUGH MAGIC PORTALS. ::facepalm::
The plot itself is insanely deus ex machina: the only reason our heroic party manages to meet up with each other is a string of coincidences revealed to have been the work of a deity. I would say 80-90% of the action involves obvious, sometimes even sloppy coincidence. The author attempts to address this at one point late in the book, but the fate vs free will argument made is hand-wavy at best.
Especially ludicrous is the idea that the hobbit- excuse me, tomble – finds a secret letter and goes running to the other side of the planet just because he knows… something. Why? Because he read about it in a random book in a random library. And he gets there by tricking a random mage into opening a portal that just happens to be in the vicinity of his quarry. At least when he’s confronted, there’s a logical reason he can slip through the cracks (he can do Will magic).
I intensely dislike deus ex machina plots on principle. No matter how the author tries to spin it, they completely negate the characters’ agency. The worst part has to be the prophecy. Prophecies are tricky to do well. Authors fall into using a prophecy as a crutch far too easily. Your prophecy is not your outline. It should augment your story, not dictate it. And if you can’t get your characters from point A to point B without stooping to “the gods did it” for everything, you need to rethink your plot.
As for the worldbuilding, it’s sparse on detail at best. There are too many places – most of them irrelevant and mentioned only for local color. All these places are, of course, inhabited by fantastical creatures. Way, way, way too many fantastical creatures.
The author tosses out races like candy, maybe just because they sound nifty. There’s Broedi’s Noble Savage giant race, the hobbit-like race which spawns our random bookworm meddler, and probably a dozen more we only hear of by name. Particularly egregious are the frequent, and inconsistent, mentions of the elven-ish ijul/saeljul/erijul/whatever-jul’s. Are they the same race? different races? some sort of rank designation? The author can’t even decide what kind of *jul the bad guy is, switching terms sometimes within two sentences for no apparent reason. Make up your mind, please, and be consistent! Otherwise you confuse your readers at best and alienate them at worst.
There were some decent characters, all of them from the Not Super Special camp. That said, the deus ex machina stuff gave them little to do most of the time, except to be confused about what was going on. Jak was probably the best of these, with the most apparent agency and intention. Most of the others quite literally had no idea why they were there.
There were a ton of threads left hanging, as is expected from a first book in a series. Hope most of them will be attended to in later books, but with the story being so confusing and muddled (despite being mostly predictable and obvious) one wonders which are going to get lost.
A few more nitpicks:
- Nikalys and Kenders: I hate their names. As someone who used to make up insanely unpronounceable names as a teen, I know from bad names. “Nikalys” is, frankly, hard to read. “Kenders” in my mind = the D&D race, which is distracting. Most everyone else has a reasonably pronounceable name; it comes off as another cheap trick to elevate the heroes, who must be magical and special and different.
- The author uses “sweet” and “sour” as local-color slang for “better” or “worse,” and it’s such an obvious attempt that it stands out every time those words come up. It’s also horrendously twee, especially when the grown men are using it. I gritted my teeth every time it came up.
- Also, the term “White Lions” kept putting Three Lions by the Lightning Seeds in my head, which is, of course, completely unrelated and no fault of the author’s.
The decision to keep the gods “grounded” and unable to get back to their celestial realm from earth had potential, but wasn’t established enough to have any real meaning. The Constable Trackers, who hunt the mages, were a minor stroke of genius. For once, an author didn’t resort to killing off the entire family for conveniency/plot sake. And the decisions to have the soldiers accompany the heroes instead of arresting them was a nice change. Some of the magic tricks were nifty, though the use of Strands and Weaving as the magical framework has been done better. The grammar wasn’t great but it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen.
Honestly, I almost stopped halfway through this book because I was so tired of the mediocrity. It might sound like I really hated this book, but actually most of it was too bland to seriously dislike. The writing is inconsistent and most of the action is pretty standard fare. There may be a salvageable story in there somewhere, but it needs so much work that I’m skeptical. Unfortunately, the end result is a mishmash of poorly-rendered stereotypes, bog-standard tropes, and very little actual invention.