Blind Eye Books, $17.95, ISBN 978-1-935560-32-6
Champion of the Scarlet Wolf Book One, like its title suggests, is the first book in a series, so you will have to invest time and money to get the whole story. This story ends on a note that offers ample conclusion if you don’t want to read any other books in the series, but there will be unanswered questions that would plague your conscience for the rest of your life. Also, this one is set in the same fantasy world as that in the Lord of the White Hell series, but this book stands alone just fine if you haven’t read those books.
Elezar Grunito is an assassin. He’s of the stoic emo variety – you won’t actually see him killing for money here, and his conscience is weighed down by guilt and all those uncomfortable feelings – so adjust your expectations a bit if you are hoping for something else. When this story opens, he has killed a powerful fellow who tried to kill his BFF (his BFF screwed the man’s wife) and Elezar accepts an assignment to avoid having to face the music. He is sent away from his country of Cadeleon to Labara, a northern neighborhood currently under Cadeleon’s “protection” (we all know what that means, don’t we?). That region has a tenuous kind of peace with Cadeleon. Unlike Cadeleon, Labara is steeped in magical arts, although the powerful witches of that country don’t like to share and are quite territorial. Elezar’s job is to determine – discreetly, of course, while undercover – whether a top witch is plotting to seize Labara for her own, probably in league with some locals who resent Cadeleon’s “protection”. Along the way, he finds a wounded dog, and when the dog transforms into a naked witch called Skellan (witch here refers to magic users both male and female), he is only starting to discover that he has stumbled upon something more than some petty plotting of power-hungry people. Skellan has his own secrets, although I correctly guessed his true identity the moment the clue is dropped into the story.
Unlike most people, I never get the impression that the author’s world building is as amazing as it is claimed to be – she often uses fancy made-up words as substitute for details. Here, however, the author takes the effort to describe in detail a little bit more, mostly on what one is wearing and details of the scenery, although the overall setting itself remains somewhat sketchy. Then again, there is a good thing to such amorphous world building – the reader can use her own imagination and the lack of details here means that the reader can be quite… flexible. Want to think of this setting as some generic old European-style one? No problem. Maybe Renaissance Italy with a touch of generic sword and sorcery elements? Sure, that will work too.
Still, the author keeps things going very well in the first third or so of the book. The pacing is solid, Elezar is a compelling character, and I find myself intrigued by the whole thing. Even Elezar’s relationship with the dog is cute. And then the dog turns into Skellan, who turns out to be on the cocky and bratty side, and the nuances of the story swift considerably. Elezar morphs from a brooding but stoic dude who could have been from a story by RA Salvatore to a bemused daddy-type fellow chasing after Skellan. I don’t really have an issue with this, but I will always feel that I like Skellan better when he is a dog. As a human, he’s just sort of… there. I prefer the quieter but more stable dynamics he has with Elezar when he is in doggy form.
The middle third of the book – which is after Skellan has gone all human and bratty – sags. Nothing much happens here other than scenery-chewing, and I find my attention drifting away easily. I have to say this, though – even at their most boring, Skellan and Elezar are far more interesting than the bland turds in the author’s Rifter series.
The last third, fortunately, sees the author going right back on track. There are exciting things happening here, the puzzle pieces fall into place, and character cameos from the previous related series make sense and advance the plot. Of course Skellan is special and what not – heaven forbid we forget to include a special snowflake in such a story – but time will tell if this turns him into an annoying black hole or a compelling main character. For now, he’s tolerable. Elezar gets to act all noble and daring, and the whole thing sets up events to come very nicely. I must confess that I find myself feeling eager to start with the next book ASAP.
Aside from the sagging middle, the only other main flaw of this book is its lack of surprises. The main characters never seem to experience any genuine distress or entertain any possibility that they may fail or die – even at the end, when things seem lost, I never get the impression that things are lost. This is because, up to that point, the characters may experience wounds here and there that cause excruciating pain and even become possibly fatal, but these setbacks never stop them from doing what they want to do. Elezar and Skellan seem invulnerable, immortal, so when the denouement happens, I am conditioned to expect these setbacks to just roll off the characters’ backs. And they do.
Still, I have a fun time reading this book – the good parts are very good – so it is only fair that I give this one four oogies.