- The White Tree
- By: Edward W Robertson
- Book 1 in the Cycle of Arawn series
- Rating: 4 (out of 5)
I acquired this book some months ago, and at that time it was free. Free e-books are often hit or miss, and I’ve started far more poorly executed stories than excellent ones, especially the epic fantasies. So I didn’t have high expectations for this one.
We are introduced quickly and somewhat bloodily to Dante, our hero, as he searches an abandoned temple for the holy book of a dead god’s order – the Cycle of Arawn. He finds it, and discovers he can’t read it because it is in a language he doesn’t recognize. So he does what any sixteen year old boy in his situation would do: he goes to the library! No, really. Dante’s devotion to his books (and the Cycle in particular) is maintained throughout the story.
Dante’s focus is to learn how to work the nether, a type of shadow-magic he’s seen used once, and which starts his hunt and our story. Nether, despite its name, is neither good nor evil as near as anyone can tell, but often used for both. In the process he also learns that the history of his world as he’s been taught is, shall we say, slightly inaccurate.
It turns out, of course, that the dead god Arawn isn’t dead, and neither is his order, and it takes no time at all for Dante to realize he’s being hunted. This knowledge inspires Dante to acquire some assistance – he can’t watch his back and read at the same time. Enter Blays, the other main character, slightly younger than Dante but significantly better in a fight. This is where I got hooked: the interactions between the two boys are quite definitively Boys Being Boys, and the mixture of naivete, bravado, and plain old stubbornness gives the book its heart.
As we go through the story, it becomes a simple quest epic in structure – go to Narashtovik, the city of Arawn’s followers, and destroy their leader before she wrecks havoc on the rest of the world. Cue heroics… or not, as the concept of right vs. wrong, not to mention Dante’s (and Blays’) worldview, is constantly tested, if not completely twisted. Ultimately, it’s realistic in the sense that no person or situation is ever simply one or the other, but contains aspects of both.
The bulk of the story is solidly Dante-and-Blays focused. Until they get to Narashtovik, there are few characters with whom the boys come into contact; none stay for long and the boys always end up on their own eventually. Their arrival in Narashtovik, however, is where the book really starts to shine: it brings characters and situations that force Dante to think fast and think too much. He comes up with some clever tricks, and eventually, of course, they Save The Day… or does he? Of course, this is first in a series, so there must be Unfinished Business to be resolved in future volumes.
A few issues I noted:
- I was confused by the first chapter, which jumps from present to flashback and back to present with no real delineation. This flashback incident is such a disorganized presentation it almost made me put the book down, but I persevered. Fortunately, it’s only in the first chapter.
- There were a number of editing issues (typos, punctuation) especially in the beginning. I didn’t notice as much in the later scenes, but the first half of the book, at least, could use tweaking and polishing.
- The dialogue, especially between the boys, has a tendency to sound anachronistic, which could be interesting if employed more deftly, but mostly ends up distracting.
- The presence of two random-humanoid races comes into play briefly, and somewhat awkwardly. It’s hinted that one race will play a part in later books, but as it stands, there is no explanation or backstory on the races and the only purpose I could discern was to add “something different” to these minor characters.
- There is only one female character in the book, and that female character is the main villain. One could presume a certain inherent misogyny in that, but I think, in this case, it’s an effect of the very boy-centric storyline; there are no women simply because there are so few characters of any note. That said, if the trend continues in later books, well….
- The boys in their travels are very careful not to spend too much time with other people. While this may be a wise move given who’s on their trail, it may be a negative to some readers. There’s plenty of action, but it’s divided by long stretches of traveling and little else.
In particular, I must mention a couple of issues with the concept of the nether:
- There are multiple other sects of religious orders but apparently none of them ever had any magic, nether or otherwise. Nor did anyone else in the history of the world. Nether vanished somewhere in the destruction of Arawn’s followers and is functionally nonexistent. There don’t even appear to be any tales of magic in this world at all outside of Narashtovik and the rare copies of the Cycle.
- Also, there are a few tiny references to ether – the opposite or the primary of nether, depending on who you ask – but no one pursues that beyond a mention here and there. On one hand, we are reading from Dante’s perspective and if he doesn’t know, neither do we; on the other hand, Dante is a voracious learner and a precocious student of the nether magic, and you’d think he’d take at least a slight interest, especially when a nether-user pops out some ether magic in front of him. Alas, it’s completely dropped.
Overall, the story is solid. In the first half of the book, I constantly felt as if the author was reaching for the edges of excellence, could see them just around the corner, but didn’t quite make the final stretch. There were flashes of brilliance, and the convolutions of the endgame are definitely the main event of the book. Without the moral and ethical quandaries that the boys – particularly Dante – were forced to navigate, it would have been mediocre at best. It’s definitely an Epic Fantasy; I caught myself noting the stages of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as the story progressed (o hai, Mentor! And there’s another Test, and an Ally and…).
What makes this book worth reading, however, is the evolution of the characters from kids playing hero to men whose decisions have impact felt the world over. And there’s Dante. While Blays is a significant and vitally important character, this is Dante’s story. I didn’t always like him, but I was always intrigued by him. He’s naive but practical, sometimes oblivious, sometimes painfully insightful. At some points a hero, at others an antihero, he is never without a strong opinion regardless of whether he knows what to do about it. Even at the very end of the book, he sides neither with angels nor devils (not that either exist in this mythos); you can’t predict which way he’ll go next. Only that whatever he does, it’ll be with the nether at his command and Blays at his side.