Inside the front cover we find a series of very poorly drawn character portraits from Stanek himself, who doesn’t have a good grasp of human anatomy or perspective. Look, I know that art is hard. I’m a terrible artist, myself. That’s why there are professional artists out there to create illustrations that don’t look like shit.
There are also a couple maps with a lot of extremely uncreative and borderline plagiaristic names like ‘Rivenwood’. There’s even an ‘Eragol’, which amuses me. The second map, though, makes no sense whatsoever. North is up, South is down, and running horizontally across the middle of the map is the East-West Road, which is reasonable enough. Except to the north of this road is a small section called the ‘Western Territories’, and to the south of this road is a small section called the ‘Eastern Territories’. Does Stanek seriously not know how a map works?
Chapter One: Those Destined
The book begins, as most poorly written books do, with a moronic paragraph that is doubtlessly intended to sound mysterious, epic, and Tolkienesque; but is in fact just begging to be quoted and mocked mercilessly.
Sunrise loomed across the horizon, pale as jasmine and mostly obscured by dark, feral clouds (page 21).
Okay. So the threatening sunrise is as pale as pale yellow and it’s being blocked by undomesticated clouds? This is the image that’s coming to mind.
A girl named Adrina walks out onto a catwalk on top of the palace wall and looks down into a large square. She thinks about the kingdom, as people who live in a kingdom frequently do for the benefit of the readers. Keeping with Stanek’s tradition of extremely creative names, it’s called ‘Great Kingdom’. There’s the ‘High Province’ and the ‘South Province’ and the ‘Western Territories’ and the ‘Eastern Territories’. It’s all very exciting and lasts for the better part of two pages, listing different countries and locations like Stanek actually expects us to remember any of it. Just what I wanted on the first two pages: an infodump. Eventually Stanek gets back to the action. So to speak.
But today Adrina was frustrated to the point of tears. She wouldn’t pass the day dreaming of things she may never see (page 22).
Lovely, teenage angst. Of course, Stanek doesn’t tell us why she’s frustrated. Also, why does Stanek tell us that Adrina is not going to pass the day dreaming of things she’ll never see…when that is precisely what she’s doing? It doesn’t make any sense.
She hears footsteps and thinks it might be her governess, Lady Isador. So she sneaks off to the north watchtower, internally deciding to miss her lessons. As she goes, Adrina thinks through all of her lessons and the ‘proper’ things that she has to do – among them, begin courting.
What did she need a man for? Moreover, what would she do with one once she caught him? Was there anything she couldn’t do on her own? (page 23).
Ah-hah. So here is our Spunky Princess, who is thinking about running away from home to escape being forced into marriage. Yeah, I’ve never heard that one before.
Next, Adrina thinks about her mother and continues to angst:
“Why, mother, why did you have to go? I have never forgiven you, never, and I never will. Calyin is wed. Valam is in the south. Midori went away, never to return. And you, you are…gone.” (page 24)
This is actually pretty common of Stanek. On a regular basis throughout this series he will throw in random names and events that have never been referenced before and will never be referenced again and for some reason he expects the reader to be able to piece everything together from subtle clues that are vaguely hinted at here and there but never actually explained. This might be acceptable if Stanek was writing a deep literary work where the reader is expected to parse through multiple layers of meaning to get any kind of enjoyment out of the story, but it’s not: this is a series that is marketed towards children, and it’s completely incomprehensible. It has taken me multiple re-readings and extensive notes to even begin to grasp what Stanek’s storyline is supposed to be, and even with that it’s not entirely clear. Events randomly happen that are never explained. Characters suddenly and mysteriously become aware of information that they have never actually learned. The plotline and even the most basic of character motivations make no fucking sense. If you read this series, there is no point anywhere in the series where you understand what is going on and why characters are doing certain things.
Eventually, if you start comparing notes and actually start an online wiki, which is the only way I was even able to personally start making sense of this clusterfuck of a series, buried beneath layers of drivel is a shadow of a coherent plot. I do mean a shadow. Stanek deserves no credit for this. From looking at the series as a whole, I’m pretty sure he conceived of the plot and then began writing the series, and simply lacked the skill as a writer to get information across to the reader. A good writer will craft a storyline that is easy for the reader to follow, so the reader can understand character motivations and follow the plot as it progresses. Even if the plot is intentionally made confusing to deceive and manipulate the reader, it can almost always be enjoyed on one level and then it will be enjoyed on another level when the surprise reveal takes place.
Stanek’s writing cannot be enjoyed on any level. It is an incomprehensible, poorly written mess. Even with my rather extensive knowledge of the work I cannot enjoy it: instead of being confusing, poorly written drivel, it’s just poorly written drivel. Once you understand what is actually going on it’s still a very shitty book.
My point is that periodically I will explain what is actually going on, but you, dear reader, need to remember that if you were actually reading this series it wouldn’t make any sense and you would be hopelessly confused.
Suddenly a figure from the shadows speaks to her and tells her that her mother was very beautiful. Adrina screams, terrified, and immediately thinks that some rogue is here to kidnap her.
Adrina said coyly (page 24).
You do not speak coyly when you’re terrified. I do not think that word means what you think it means, Stanek.
But the figure isn’t there to try and kidnap her. It tells her that she’ll journey far from Imtal, because she’s ‘seen’ it. She takes Adrina’s hand and tells her to smell the wind:
“Change, child. Sadness cannot hold forever the land” (page 25).
That’s one of the most awkwardly constructed sentences I’ve ever seen. And this would still only make sense if we were aware that there was some sadness in the land. For this prophecy to work, we need to be aware that there’s actually some sadness before being told that it’s going to end.
The conversation continues for half a page about nothing in particular. Eventually the old woman tells Adrina to be careful what she wishes for, and then says she sees her standing on a battlefield with thousands of people lying dead at her feet. Spooky! And mysterious. It would mean a lot more if we had any idea who this old woman was, or if we would eventually find out who this old woman was, but we don’t.
We then jump over to a new character, Vilmos. He wakes up from a nightmare, drenched in sweat. The Special Illustrated Edition has a picture here, which depicts Vilmos either in the middle of a horrible nightmare or directly after just masturbating himself to orgasm.
In the dream he had used the forbidden magic once too often and the Priests of the Dark Flame – opposers of all that is magic and magical – came from their temples to slay him (page 26).
Keep in mind this is the first we’ve heard about magic, forbidden or otherwise. Why is it forbidden? No idea. Just how forbidden is forbidden? Again, we have no idea, but here’s yet another inconsistency: apparently it’s forbidden enough that if you use it, Priests will come out to kill you…but only if you use it ‘once too often’. So apparently some light magic dabbling is okay, but if you cross that invisible line you’re screwed.
Only then that he became the boy of twelve whose name was Vilmos (page 27).
He’s been referred to three times as Vilmos. Therefore, he’s been Vilmos all along.
He walks into the kitchen, where his mother is making breakfast.
“Late again. You’ll sleep your life away. Already an hour past first light,” said his mother. She stood in front of the hearth. The words were not meant to be harsh, nor were they taken thus. They were a standard greeting (page 27).
Of course, if they’re a standard greeting, there really isn’t any reason for Vilmos to apologize, which he immediately does, now is there?
His mother, Lillath, tells him that he can’t forget his lessons, which is to recite the lore of his peoples. Apparently his father is Counselor for the village they live in which means someday Vilmos will take his place. Now, I can see the miller’s son growing up to be the miller, and the blacksmith’s son growing up to be the blacksmith, but being a Counselor – i.e. being intelligent and able to give good advice – is not something that can just be taught. Passing down this position from father to son sounds like a terrible idea, especially when your son is [spoiler alert] as moronic as Vilmos is.
Vilmos recites a piece of bland history that mostly consists of a bunch of names of people and where they lived. The only really semi-important bit is that the Alder Kingdom (the kingdom that Adrina is the princess of, although this isn’t immediately clear from just reading the story) has an alliance with the ‘Four Peoples’.
“Their Graces, King Alexas of Yug, King Jarom of Vostok, King Peter of Zapad and his Royal Majesty, King Charles of Sever, are the wardens of the Four Peoples.”
Lillath maintained her smile. “Well, yes,” she said, “that is the lore of the four kingdoms and thus the tale of Four Peoples. But it is not the lore of the Four Peoples. You need to take great care in your listening. Listening is the counselor’s greatest skill. Each tale, each bit of lore, tells a lesson. Relate the lesson through the lore; it is the way of the counselor. Choose the wrong tale, give the wrong advice.” (page 28).
I think forcing yourself to pick a bit of lore which will then tell you what advice to give is both extremely limiting and means that you’ll probably give a lot of bad advice. A better idea would be to study history thoroughly and learn things until you have wisdom, and then use your wisdom and your knowledge of history when people ask you for advice. Trying to match a specific story of something that happened in the past towards something in the present is a recipe for disaster.
Also, why isn’t Vilmos’ father teaching him all of this? He is the counselor, after all.
Vilmos mentions that it’s time to gather firewood so Lillath lets him off. I think this is probably because Stanek didn’t want to come up with an actual story and a lesson that made sense. Throughout this series, Stanek does his best to avoid writing difficult things like battle scenes and character development, preferring to stick to characters doing mundane things like eating, bathing, and talking about nothing in particular.
He heads out to gather firewood and thinks about his father, who dislikes him and yells at him a lot; and then about his mother, who he loves dearly:
In the back of his mind, Vilmos knew the real reason he watched his mother so closely. One day he would indeed be sent away, far away, because one day the dark priests would come for him (pages 29-30).
Wait. So he’s being forced to memorize lore so he can become a counselor for his village, even though they know he’s going to be sent away from his village to escape the priests? Yeah… that makes sense.
For that matter, why would he being sent away someday make him watch his mother more closely? It’s not like she’s in any danger. I suppose it’s possible that he knows he’ll never see his mother again after that so he treasures every moment with her, but if that were the case, why wouldn’t Stanek actually say that? Books marketed at ten-year-olds shouldn’t make the reader guess at what characters are doing.
We then jump to an Elf named Seth, who’s walking alongside someone called the Queen Mother. Seth is some kind of bodyguard. He telepathically asks the Queen whether Sathar has survived the Dark Journey. I Don’t know why Words are Randomly Capitalized, but it does Piss me Off. I also don’t know why a bodyguard is wasting his mental energy on talking to the person he’s supposed to be protecting. I also don’t know who Sathar is, what the Dark Journey is, or who these people are, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to find out. But maybe that’s just me.
The Queen Mother says that he’s joined King Mark of West Reach, others are flocking to his banner, and it’s what they’ve most feared. I still have no idea what they’re talking about. Goddammit Stanek, explain something! Stop randomly throwing in lines about stupid shit and expect us to magically discern from it what’s going on! I don’t need the entire plot explained, just something. Anything. Some shred of a story that I can grasp onto and understand.
The Queen Mother says that she’ll miss Seth in her thoughts. Seth is surprised because it’s impossible to break their mental link. He has no idea what she’s talking about. Well, it’s refreshing to finally be in the same boat as a character.