New Releases: The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The Adamantine Palace is the fast-paced first book from Stephen Deas, a newcomer to the fantasy scene.
The world of the Palace is one filled with violence and tension. The land is split into huge swathes - the 'Sea of Salt' desert, the 'Sea of Storms' ocean and craggy mountains left, right and center. The people are equally violent and tense.
A peculiar sort of armistice has been in place since the Dragons ruled the world - nine kings and queens glare at one another icily with an elected 'Speaker' binding them together.
The Dragons themselves are still flapping about merrily. Once they were terrifying menaces, now they are semi-domesticated beasts of burden for the upper classes. Drugged from birth by a secretive guild of Alchemists, the Dragons are the ultimate in currency - giant fanged status symbols for the privileged few.
After several hundred pages of The Adamantine Palace, this is the sum total of the book's world building efforts. Normally, I come across quite opposed to fantasy world-building, but that's not the truth - I'm not anti-world-building, I'm pro-character-development.
Unfortunately, in fantasy, it is easy for authors to see this to be an either/or relationship - generally ignoring the need for character development in favor of nifty ideas (often with fangs and/or magic swords). In the unique case of The Adamantine Palace, we're spared detailed world-building (or, in fact, any detail at all) - but Deas also, unfortunately, spares us character development.
The ensemble cast (still very trendy - thank you George RR Martin & The Wire), is simply paper-thin. There are a few recognizable stereotypes (the ugly daughter who likes Dragons more than other people is particularly painful) and a half-dozen utterly unformed concepts. The political arena swarms with amorphous characters with shifting, uninteresting motivations. There are plots within plots, but they seem to exist only as a means to a means - nothing actually develops to an understandable conclusion. Prince Viper betrayed the Queen Mother today! But... why? What does he actually get from it?
Does anyone actually have any sort of motivation? Certainly, everyone wants to be Speaker - but that seems to be an entirely meaningless goal as a) we never actually learn why it is important, b) it seems to be a bit crap, c) it certainly isn't as good as just being King/Queen/Prince/whatever. People are chasing after a McGuffin because it makes the book progress, but they're not doing so in a way that rewards the reader for coming on the journey with them.
As far as the larger plot, The Adamantine Palace is a version of 'while the humans squabble, the Big Bad Cometh...'. While Prince Viper and the Queen Mother and Speaker Shaky all stab one another in the back (for no discernable reason), the Dragons are making a comeback. Just a single Dragon causes a bit of havoc in The Adamantine Palace - the sequel, invariably, will have armies of engorged, blood-drinking beasties. One can only hope that a hero arises in an unlikely place...
Also looming in the background, there's a group of derty ferrin tradesmen that swap sinister-over-technological-goods and back-alley-drugs with the sneakier nobles, trying to get their paws on a Dragon. That's undoubtedly going to end well.
In the author's favor, this is, without a doubt, the fast-paced book that the reviews say it is. It, in fact, travels at something approaching breakneck. Stephen Deas' commitment to telling a good story is laudable - it is hard not to appreciate the many individual twists and turns, even if they seem to be for naught. Similarly praiseworthy is the aggressive abandonment of traditional world-building, whether I'm comfortable with it or not.
A strong fantasy story should take place in an environment detailed by the characters and their actions. In this case, unfortunately, we only get the actions. Without understanding (or caring) more about the characters, it is impossible to understand how the pieces fit together - or what value they have.
By comparison, I'd suggest Oison McGann's Ancient Appetites (reviewed very recently). It is ok to make the book purely about telling a good story - McGann proves that (albeit for a young adult audience). But it needs to be a damn good story to pull it off. The Adamantine Palace becomes too bogged down in the 'hows' and 'whats' to ever explain the 'whos' and the 'whys'.