A few weeks ago, when I included A Sea of Skulls by Vox Day in my Dragon Award nomination list, I promised to have a review out. Events on the ground caused things to shift around, but today I can finally share that review with you.
Before delving into the book review itself, I should point out a few things. First of all, this is not quite a complete book. The author released it in its current form, promising to follow up with a finalized version when it’s actually done. It’s an interesting experiment in the digital world, and I’m curious to see how that works out for him in the long run. Second, unlike many books that I review, I did not receive a free copy from the author. I paid full price for my copy.
This series is, to me, one of the most interesting things happening in the current science fiction and fantasy landscape. Book one kind of blew my mind. Book two continues in that tradition.
The author has stated that he intended this series as a deliberate shot across the bow at George R.R. Martin for a) his inability to finish his epic master series and b) the fact that Martin has clearly lost the plot in later books. As a reader, my belief is not only that Mr. Day has succeeded, but that he’s also created a substantially better series than Mr. Martin’s.
The series share much in common. The books are long. The story is epic in scope – very epic – spanning a huge fictional world. The world feels lived in, with a great deal of history, and included many diverse cultures. Massive battles and dirty politics are the order of the day.
But the Arts of Dark and Light series has two things dreadfully lost in A Song of Ice and Fire: hope and humanity.
When Martin killed Ned Stark at the end of his first book, it produced a shocking effect. It roped me in – and many others like me. But at the current point of A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s nobody left to really root for. All of the honorable characters are long dead. Even the semi-honorable characters have now met their demise. Only the disgusting remain. Westeros has become a bleak and desolate place. The current state of the story leaves us wondering if it can be saved – but that’s normal storytelling. It also leaves us wondering if it should be saved, and that’s where it’s losing me.
Mr. Day, on the other hand, has kept a ray of humanity in his characters even as they face a world of darkness around them. Some characters succomb to the evil. But others do not, and we still have champions worth rooting for.
One interesting thing about this series is the way Mr. Day has developed a world based so heavily on the Roman era. This is an unusal setting for contemporary fantasy writers, and that helps it stand out. More interesting, however, is the way he weaves religion into the story. Unlike most fantasy worlds that present a “psuedo” Catholic church – ie, Catholic in all of its trappings but none of its actual theology – Mr. Day presents what basically is the Catholic church. The beliefs are more or less complete.
To me, this provides a level of verisimilitude that other fantasy worlds can’t compete with. Most authors seem to assume that the trappings of the Catholic church are inherent in organized religion in general. They’re not. They’re distinctly Christian in character, which is why you basically only see them in the real world in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Mr. Day recognizes that these features didn’t evolve in a vacuum. In his world, they belong. And one can’t help but think, given the story’s hints, that the church will come back to play a major role.
This book doesn’t feel like an incomplete book. You won’t miss what’s not there. However, if you get it now, you’ll also get the updates when they come. I, for one, look forward to that.
I do have three specific complaints about the book, however.
First, I really wish we’d seen more of the church again in this installment. I’m hoping for more of that in the update.
Second, the author (who has a natural gift for languages himself, and speaks several) has clearly developed rather involved languages for his elves, dwarves, and orcs. Unfortunately, he uses them just a bit too much in this installment. This makes some sections of the book hard to follow. I’m a long time fantasy fan and used to unfamiliar fantasy words. But I also don’t have Mr. Day’s natural gift for language – and this extensive use of them draws me out of the story as I struggle to understand what’s actually going on.
Third, and finally, this installment focuses a bit too much for my taste on a particular female elf. Her storyline is interesting, but the author spends time on it that I would rather have spent reading about the other characters. This isn’t as bad as it might sound, though. Had her chapters been broken up a bit more, it would’ve been fine. I hope that the updated, final version of the book will address this.
Even with these flaws, this is still a five star book. If you’re into epic fantasy, I can’t recommend Arts of Dark and Light highly enough. Give it a shot.