An alternate title to this post may be "The Dangers of Self-Publication". Just a forewarning, this review will contain spoilers, so if you're interested in reading this book, don't go beyond the place where I say "...the thing is plagued with problems. I'm going to list a few right now." I do this because I want to back up my arguments here with specific examples, and there's no way to do that without describing or hinting at some plot points.
In Wilder Lands is a book I picked up on Kindle while there was a deal going on letting you buy the book for free. I'm afraid I know nothing about the author, and tracking down information about him and any other works he may have written proved a little too difficult, so I won't be giving a little bio like I did for Phil and (did I? maybe) Kyell.
This book is about a lemur-man named Estin who lives in a D&D-derivative world with long-lived elves, boisterous and drunken dwarves with ornate beards, halflings, trolls, ogres, elementals, dragons, and so on and so forth. Estin is a survivor of an attack on his home village, wherever that might have been, and is plagued with a recurring dream about the day his father was murdered and his mother was collared and drug out of the house by slavers. He lives day-to-day in a walled city, doing whatever he needs to do to survive, whether that be to steal food or run the occasional odd job for a rat crime-lord. One such job involves tagging along with a 'gypsy' woman, who wants to take a precious family heirloom back from the town's Duke, and so they break into the local keep and attempt to locate the artifact. While there, the two witness a meeting between the Duke and a fox 'wildling' (this author's name for furries) and see her get harassed and eventually, after a rather bloody fight, captured and taken off somewhere to be tortured. You see, humans in this world (and humanoid races... everyone but the wildlings) are apparently pretty nasty and have the lowest opinions of the wildlings, seeing them only as commodities. I'm sure you've heard that one before.
Anyway, Estin eventually frees this fox, the gypsy gets killed during their escape by an undead necromancer, and the fox and Estin flee the city and head out to the wilds. The rest of the book follows their relationship, with the backdrop of a massive war perpetuated by necromancers like the one that killed Estin's gypsy companion.
Okay, now why did I start this off by saying that an alternate title would be 'The Dangers of Self-Publication'? Well, this is a self-published book, and it becomes really obvious after only a brief time reading it that this is the case. Despite a lot of epic goings-on and an actually very well-done love story, the thing is plagued with problems. I'm going to list a few right now.
1.) Imprecise and confusing language. Here's a quote from the book:
Emphasis mine. So.. a keg is, what, 50 liters? So a small keg would probably be maybe 5 or 10. Liters. So someone left him a keg of ale, and he doesn't drink from it, he drinks it. This implies all of it. That would kill a normal man, if only because trying to fit that amount of liquid in your stomach would have serious health implications.There was nothing in there that would quench his heart’s tears, aside from curling into blankets and drinking a small keg of ale that had been left for him.
Wait, what happened? Was he in the tent's wall, then spun around, nearly diving out of the wall in some direction? Did he spin around so fast he didn't know what direction he was facing and accidentally almost tore through the fabric of the tent wall? I don't really understand.Estin nearly dove out of the tent’s wall in surprise as he spun, finding himself....
These are two examples, but this kind of thing happens throughout the whole book, making action scenes, battle scenes, and even just scenes where some characters walk from one place to another rather difficult to follow. Near the beginning I stopped and reread such passages, but after a while I just gave up and decided not to waste my time trying to follow it, since the details of the action scenes were unimportant anyway. But this isn't exactly the hallmark of a well-written novel.
2.) Worthless characters. There are a number of times when a character is introduced who ends up serving no ultimate purpose to the story, despite the author spending quite a bit of time fleshing him out for the reader.
There was a ferret kid (or something, I can't recall what he was, actually) who bugs Estin when he gets to the wildling camp. We get a few scenes of this character acting hyper and quirky, and then once the plot moves forward the character disappears forever. Or maybe he shows up again briefly at some point. I can't recall. Either way, the character does nothing at all to advance the plot, and thus really didn't need to be in there.
During this same period in the book, Estin gets bugged by a doe who seems to have a thing for him. He does his best to push her away, and he does. Thus ends her involvement with the plot.
Estin gets captured at some point and taken to a forced-labor camp. The fox-lady's (Feanne, is her name) kits are with him, and they get harassed by a large cougar male, who apparently wants to take sexual advantage of one of them. This makes Estin go into a righteous rage wherein he nearly kills the cougar. Then his dwarf buddy Finth breaks him out of the camp and we never see the cougar again.
Possibly my favorite example, the woodland spirit that Feanne gets most of her power from. This was the most worthless example of a demi-god I've ever seen. There's a great big buildup when we first see this creature... it's dark, makes the air cold, has red glowing eyes, and so on and so forth. Feanne is the nearest thing to exiled from the village for choosing to accept its power, her relationship with her father (the chief) is strained, yadda yadda. The author does a careful job making us fear and respect this thing. But then it turns out, despite that Feanne's soul is basically bound to it, all she has to do to get outside of its power is to move to a town. Boom, problem solved. To escape the wrath of the forest spirit, leave the forest. Now, she ends up having to call on its power again, and, being angry, the spirit decides that a fitting trade for the use of this power would be her life. So she uses the power, saves everyone, and then drops dead. But then Estin just drags her corpse to a healing circle and shoves her spirit back into her body, so now she's alive again. So so much for that. Then, the be all end all, once shit starts to get real with this undead war that's going on, the forest that the spirit inhabits gets obliterated, essentially killing off the spirit... but Feanne is still able to call on its power. Except now there's barely any repercussion for doing so. So basically what we have here is an utterly laughable and impotent mystical being whose purpose in the story is to give Feanne a neat power.
There may be a few other examples, but those are the main ones. This is what you call a lack of planning and cohesion.
3.) Characters often act like idiots. This one also falls under the lack of planning category.
After living in the wilds for a while, Estin ends up having a need to head back into the city where he grew up. He brings along jewels he'd stolen during his little foray into the Duke's keep in order to buy some supplies for the village, but he also gets the idea into his head that he should leave a few for a number of shopkeepers who took pity on him while he lived there. There are problems with this... not the least of which his dwarf companion Finth actually brings up when he sees the jewels Estin intends to sell. Fact is, he stole those jewels, from the Duke. The Duke knows someone broke into his keep because Feanne murdered several dozen guards on their way out, and Estin gets spotted by just about everybody. So the Duke probably wants those jewels back, and probably has people out looking for them. And where would the most likely place to find them be? Well, the marketplace, duh, because what else are you going to do with jewels besides trade them for things you want or need? So Estin's idea of giving them as gifts would essentially be condemning these shopkeepers to the gallows. What was he planning on doing, sticking them on the shopkeepers' window sills, where they find them, not knowing that they're stolen, and hence try to make some money off of them later? So that anyone who's keeping an eye out for stolen goods like that will see the shopkeepers trying to pawn them and hence arrest them on suspicion of thievery? And then what would be the shopkeepers' alibi? "I swear to God, I just found them laying there on my windowsill! I don't know where they came from!" Something tells me that wouldn't fly, especially given the introduction to the Duke that we got during his meeting with Feanne near the beginning. Now, luckily by this point the whole city has been taken over by the undead hoards, so Estin never gets the chance to act on his incredibly idiot plan.
At another point, Feanne's husband, unsure whether or not the kits are his or the result of an affair on Feanne's part, leaves camp with the kits. This puts Feanne into a deep depression and borderline insanity. Now, Estin is in love with Feanne at this point, so you'd think he'd want to do everything in his power to keep her happy. So what you'd expect would be for him to vow on his life that he'll do everything in his power to locate her husband and the kits and bring them back to her. So what does he do? He asks exactly one person if her husband can be tracked, the answer turns out to be 'no', so he gives up and volunteers himself for a suicide mission because he failed. That was it? That's all the effort you're going to give it? You're not even going to try to track him yourself?
Those are the most egregious examples. There were a lot of minor things as well that I didn't bother to write down.
4.) No concept of pacing or drama. I might amend that and say 'except when it comes to the romance plot', because again, I thought that whole thing was done pretty well (aside from the aforementioned stupidness described above regarding Feanne's kits).
When we learn about Feanne's past and her involvement with this nature spirit thing, it's done through a short and matter-of-fact monologue on her part. This is something we've been building up to for 100 pages by now, so it merited a lot more than that.
When we come across the first major battle going on, we see these 200 foot tall magical golems stomping around the city, smashing undead and causing earthquakes and whatnot. You'd think it would be pretty impressive... a great place for grandiose description and exposition, but what we get is approximately one short paragraph detailing the basic appearance of the thing, and then Estin's dwarf companion Finth explaining where they came from and what they were for. There goes all the drama from that scene.
Despite that we've built up a hatred for humans and elves and such in the first quarter of the book, when the war breaks out, humans and elves and whatnot seek refuge with the wildlings out in the woods. There's only minor conflict, in that some of the wildlings are unhappy about it. This would be a group of people who've subjugated their entire race for who knows how long, and we get basically nothing as a reaction to them suddenly wanting to come under your village's protective umbrella. Something tells me I know why the wildlings were able to be subjugated for so long. They must have no backbone.
Elementals are dragons are brought into the fray eventually, and our introduction here involves an extremely short build-up, wherein the tribe has to fend off something called a 'rock dragon', and one of the soldiers who's seeking refuge with them mentions that bigger dragons exist. Then we see a small elemental later on in the chapter, and then we get a larger view of the battles going on wherein we see big elementals and dragons floating around wreaking havoc. So now we know that elementals and dragons are a thing. Oh, and neither one of those creatures ends up serving a purpose in this book.
Okay... I've gone on a long time nitpicking this thing to death, but I just wanted to illustrate all the major faults I found with it. This is both as a fair warning to future readers, but also to express my frustration with the book in general. Fact is, despite all the things I just outlined, I know this author has talent. Yeah. I think he's got a lot of talent. Hidden amongst all the confusing prose and lazy, incoherent storytelling, there are a number of really quite brilliant gems. There are dream sequences that start each chapter that change throughout the book as Estin's character evolves. In the beginning they represent his guilt at having failed to save his parents, but when he starts his personal training with Feanne and begins to feel the first inklings of love for her, he realizes that she holds the same kind of guilt complex about the people she's failed to save in the past, and he ends up being the one to console her. That's poetry... that's really smart and clever and well done. Estin's progression as a character is believable and paced very well; he starts off a bitter asshole due to his shitty lot in life, he struggles to find acceptance with he wildlings having grown up knowing nothing of their ways, but he pushes on, finds a place, people grow to like him, he grows to like other people, the goodness in his heart eventually springs forth and he becomes a veritable hero. Perfect character arc, couldn't ask for anything better than that. The dwarf Finth, as well, starts off as just a lackey of Estin's crime-lord boss, but in his encounters with Estin he eventually comes to see his humanity and they grow to be good friends. He even breaks Estin and the kits out of the labor camp in a clever way, using the jewels the Estin had previously stolen from the Duke, giving another purpose to that whole break-in scene. Once he becomes a father himself, his dream turns 180, where now he replaces his younger self with the kits and himself and Feanne with his own parents. These things are all great.
So it annoys me, then, that the author chose to rush this product of his into the market via self-publication. This is not the final product, or at least, it really shouldn't have been. This book could have been fixed, and had it been fixed, it would have been downright brilliant, a shining star in a sea of mediocre fantasy, an epic tale of romance during the end-times of a fantastical world. But instead, it feels like the author was so excited that he finished his rough draft, he wanted to share it with the world right away and never took the time to go back and re-examine it, to make it really good, cohesive, logical, well-written. So whatever spark is there ends up getting blown out by a wind of mediocrity and rushed laziness.
I gave this book 3 stars on Amazon. This was very generous of me, I think, but I did it because it had tons of potential. If you're an author yourself and you're getting close to completing your masterpiece, please, please don't take the easy route. If you want to self-publish, hire a professional editor, take his advice, give it time. Otherwise, you'll end up marketing a half-finished product that you'll probably regret later on. This is a lesson we all should take to heart. If you're going to do something like write a novel, you need to take the time to do it well.
Okay... bottom line: would I recommend this book? The answer is, to the right audience. If you can look past its numerous flaws, you'll find a pretty cool fantasy novel, a number of halfway interesting characters, some epic goings-on, some drama, tension, sadness and happiness and romance and all the things that belong in an epic fantasy novel. If you're critical like me, though, you're going to find yourself getting angry more often than not, in which case reading it is a chore.
Next up will be Poetigress' new novel By Sword and Star. I'm looking forward to that one because I already know she knows what she's doing, so I'm predicting a positive review again.