REVIEW SUMMARY: A different sort of fantasy adventure.
MY RATING: 3.5 stars
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Condemned to a penal colony for killing his father, Blaine McFadden has learned to survive in a hostile environment. When the magic runs wild the world descends into chaos, Blaine and his friends must fight to decide their fate.
PROS: Not your average fantasy, Blaine makes for a good protagonist, strong imagery.
CONS: Unappealing change of direction, weak supporting cast, very weak ending.
BOTTOM LINE: Starts out with the swagger of a disaster/post-apocalyptic/fantasy hybrid but undergoes an unappealing change of course at the 2/3 mark and ends with a whimper.
I've been meaning to get around to reading Gail Z. Martin's The Chronicles of a Necromancer for some time. It's just one of those things, ya know? Too many good books on the market, not enough time. Well it might be a while before I get around to reading The Chronicles of a Necromancer but that's okay because Ice Forged marks the start of a new series, The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. With Ice Forged, Martin answers the question, "What happens to a society dependent on magic when the magic vanishes."
"Is it worse to be abandoned by the gods, or to think that there never were gods to begin with."
Blaine McFadden kills his father in a fit of righteous rage. Rather than beheaded he is sent to the penal colony of Velant in the bitter cold of Edgeland. Death would have been the kinder sentence. If the harsh conditions don't kill the inmates, the twisted magic of the warden-mages just might. When ships stop coming from the mainland, the colony faces a six month long night cycle deprived of the necessary supplies. Bad omens become revolution and survival of the fittest takes on a whole new meaning. Meanwhile, across the frigid ocean, the Kingdom of Donderath is on the losing side of a continent spanning war. As the stakes increase, the King must take into consideration the use of battle magic as a last resort.
Ice Forged hits the ground running, with Blaine jumping right to the patricide and getting shipped off to Velant in no time flat. Even Blaine's time in the prison mines is cut short. In the flip of a page, six years pass and Blaine, who now goes by "Mick", has earned the right to live as a colonist of Edgeland rather than an inmate of Velant. The lifestyle is still harsh but McFadden is a relatively free man, bunking with fellow colonists and trying to irk out an existence. The world building is minimal and mostly organic. There appears to be much, much more to the world than meets the eye. It is breath of fresh, chilled wind. The penal colony of Velant is like an arctic version of Australia. It's different than the standard pseudo-Medieval Europe or pseudo-Roman Empire but the setting lacks the weight of history. That's not to say that Edgeland and Donderath don't have a history, they simply don't feel weathered and aged. It's like going to a renaissance faire. All the appropriate pieces are in place, from outfits to weapons, but everything is just a little too clean, a little too manufactured. Still, Martin gets bonus points for the penal colony of Velant.
"All tragedies turn on small emotions - pride, greed, and an inability to see a harsh truth until it's too late."
Magic is common and potentially dangerous in Ice Forged. Almost everyone has a little bit of magic, the society has become dependent on it the way our civilization is dependent on electricity. Magic could be the doom of the current age as it has already brought destruction to the ages that came before. For as crucial to the story as magic becomes, it probably would have made more impact to display it in action from the beginning. It is used in the most miniscule daily tasks, but is barely noticeable until it starts fluctuating. Perhaps that could be said about electricity in our culture, we don't even notice it until it is gone, but it would have been nice to develop more of a basis for the instability to come. I do approve of the idea of Magically Assured Mutual Mass Destruction and the fallout that comes after.
What I liked most about Ice Forged is the blending of genres. In a lot of ways Ice Forged is a post-apocalyptic fantasy novel in the vein of the television drama, Jericho. It starts out as a community of people trying to survive, cut off from the rest of civilization in the wake of a massive disaster. There are both internal and external threats. This is what made Ice Forged so worth reading. I've had my fair share of fantasy novels involving hero quests and magical amulets. This seemed so much more personal and immediate. Sadly this could not last. The attempt to establish a government of merchants to keep Velant functioning is underplayed. The conflict between the colonists and the prison warden should have been more pronounced and drawn out a little longer. My interest began to wane when Blaine and friends return to Donderath and the story morphs into a semi-typical hero quest. The third act of the novel has loads more action but is much less compelling. Oh, and loads more vampires too.
Blaine "Mick" McFadden is a decent enough protagonist. He maintains a cool head in tough situations (though it is his hot temper that landed him in Velant to begin with). He's got a hard fist, though he is fair and intelligent. His schooling sets him above the dregs of Velant, though he uses his knowledge to help his fellow colonists. He's a good brawler though not particularly skilled at armed combat. He has regrets but does not dwell on them to the point of irritation. The other primary protagonist, Connor, is much less developed. For the most part it seems as though Connor is just a placeholder, set to display the perspective of someone back in Donderath while Blaine is struggling in Edgeland. The rest of Blaine's crew is a notch above Connor, though only marginally so. They fit a little too well into the soldier/archer/thief/rogue archetypes, almost like they are ready to be played in a D&D campaign. The villains remain unexplored. The threat is there but the motivation and characterization are not present.
It's a shame that Connor isn't distinguished more as a character, as he has some of the best scenes in the entire novel. There is a scene with Connor in a belfry with magical fire descending from the sky that totally blew me away. The imagery was so dramatic and intense, I could picture it with such clarity. It is a scene fit for IMAX. It is a scene that just screams impending doom. Much of Ice Forged carries the tension of a proper disaster flick, even though it fails on the follow through.
The ending is what truly bothers me. There is no climax. No climax at all. Ice Forged doesn't even end on a cliffhanger so much as a to-be-continued. It's hard to swallow after 500+ pages. There is nothing to offer the reader any sense of closure until the next story in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. It is highly unsatisfying. Complaints aside, I still see potential in this post-apocalyptic fantasy world that Gail Z. Martin has crafted. There are plenty of interesting avenues to explore pertaining to the rebuilding of society in the aftermath of disaster. Martin writes these themes quite well and I feel as though taking a step back from the magical MacGuffins would greatly enhance the quality of writing.