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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Review of Elcenia: Summons by Alicorn

Chiffon by Gattou - Lucie Provencher from flickr (CC-SA)

I really enjoy reading fanfiction, and Luminosity - two Twilight fanfic novels by Alicorn were among the best I've ever read, so I was quite enthusiastic to give Elcenia - original fantasy fiction series by Alicorn - a try as well. The main reason I didn't do that much earlier was because it's not finished, and I'd hate to wait or years for updates like it's another Game of Thrones or Order of the Stick.

Unfortunately I've been quite disappointed with it. There's a huge diffecence between writing fanfics within established world and with established characters and writing completely original fiction - even if it's "alterative universe" fanfic the author can start with established reality and characters, and spends all story points on just tweaking them a bit and focusing on the actual storyline. In Summons the author had to establish a completely new universe, a lot of new characters, create a plot, and everything else - and it felt quite flat overall.

I think the universe established in the book has a lot of potential, and it's probably the strongest aspect of the book. Both worlds are much more strongly filled by very powerful magic than a typical fantasy universe, and it includes a lot of magic of practical kinds. There are some unanswered issues here.

First - what role nonmagical people have in their worlds, if Magic can solve just about any problem easily? By comparison Tolkien-style magic is potentially ridiculously powerful but extremely rare and often quite subtle, so it causes few problems; and D&D-style magic is battle-oriented and follows "linear warriors / quadratic wizards" progress, so there are inherently very few powerful wizards, and their core competence is close to useless for solving everyday's problems not involving fighting monsters. Magic in Elcenia's setting is far more practically-oriented - but then doesn't that make pretty much all other human activities worthless? It doesn't even require any major investment of studying time to get a lot of results, that much special magical talent, or any kind of mana (other than sleep and food) - as it turns out you can become a ridiculously overpowered wizard pretty much overnight with a very simple ritual.

And second - if the act of summoning someone from another world is so trivial there, why nobody ever tried that before? Anyway, these issues are no more serious than the kind of nitpicking people can make with just about any fantasy series - and for all I know they might have good explanations somewhere down the way - and I feel that the universe is a strong point here.

A much bigger problem are characters. The book throws such a huge number of them at the reader, most with minimal characterization. The usual solution for that would be to focus on a very small group of characters first, then once the reader is comfortable with them to shift a few people in and a few people out of the focus - the kind of storytelling the first few books of Song of Ice and Fire do (then it sort of fails in books 4 and 5, especially with Meereen fail, but that's a completely unrelated issue).

Pretty much every time a character from a few chapters ago was mentioned I was completely lost who the hell was that - or even what was that character's species, gender, or home world since names are of very little help - it's fine to have completely alien naming system, but why not have some kind of gender endings and very distinct names for dragons etc. to help the reader a little? (there are some attempts at such system, but it maybe affects 10% of characters only).

That's another difference between fanfics and original fiction. In a fanfic you can throw as many characters at the reader as you wish, since most of them are known already (even if in a different version), or if not they at least fit in reader's mental image of the world somehow. If someone was described as "first-year Muggleborn Ravenclaw witch" that already gives you a huge amount of context for what they might be like, and what their relationships with different groups of characters (like teachers, racist Slytherins, etc.) might be. Or if the work takes place in a "realistic" setting, you can can usually take advantage of the tropes, and understand what it means when someone is a donut-loving fat white cop near retirement age. In original fiction in a fantasy world neither of these cluthes work, so you have to be really careful about how you present the characters so they don't overwhelm the reader.

It gets a bit better towards the end, when the rate of characters introduction slows down a bit and most get at least some action to help the reader understand who they are and what they are like.

And then there's plot... (I hopefully avoided major spoilers) That I feel is by far the weakest point of the book. There's something like five inexplicable and mostly unrelated major magical technology breakthroughs during relatively short timespan of the book, there are two romantic subplots, first of them ended out of nowhere, and then the second one started out of nowhere, charaters behave in ways that don't make much sense (going back to the point where there are too many characters but they receive very little characterization so it's impossible to figure out what their personalities are). There's also the "OMG, I must drop everything now and help the sick" subplot, which was way way more hilarious in Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality when Harry was wondering if vegetables might or might not be sentient. There are also some off-screen deaths and other major events happening with no relation to anything.

I wouldn't count any of that "unrealistic", it just feels more like we're watching a National Geographic program about Elcenia, and that's just stuff that happens to take place during filming, not like it's a real story the author wanted to tell.

tl;dr 2/5 stars. Just read Luminosity instead, even if you didn't like Twilight at all. Everybody should read Luminosity.

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