Part 8: A Maestro’s Hand

Chapter Nine – Ambush

What do we do now Brother?

We die, Brother Galan, Seth said coldly, simply, but not until we fight honorably and die honorably.

All eyes keyed to the hulking masses of multi-sailed vessels that hungrily approached (page 134).

Remember the Elves? Yeah, we left them seventy pages ago in chapter three. Anyway, to refresh your memory, Seth was in Elfville and had just been told he had to leave to go somewhere to do something. And he’d just kissed Brother Galan who, despite her name, is female. Anyway, now he’s in the middle of the ocean and has apparently just been ambushed. Now, I’m all in favor of cutting out boring exposition and keeping the action flowing, but this is a textbook example of how not to do that. The reader needs to be able to follow the story and the characters easily. This is roughly equivalent to if Tolkien decided to jump from Frodo being told by Gandalf in Hobbiton that the Ring must be destroyed, and then suddenly jumping forward to Frodo being stabbed by the Witch-King on Weathertop. Without so much as a line of retroactive explanation. Because no – Stanek does not plan to explain anything that has happened between those two times.

Also, eyes cannot “key”. I do not think that word means what you think it means, Stanek.

Seth asks the captain, Cagan, if it’s possible they can make it to open water. Apparently they’re not in open water. But then, I don’t know where they are. Anyway, Cagan says they should use their escort ships as decoys and then head off to the right – not starboard, but maybe Ruin Mist doesn’t use nautical terms – and punch through the blockade and escape to open water.

Running is pointless, Br’yan said. It would only show that we are cowards. We should strike the enemy head on, with our eyes wide open (page 134).

I don’t trust this guy’s opinion, and I wouldn’t even if his name wasn’t as pointlessly moronic as Br’yan. Seriously. What use does that apostrophe serve? It doesn’t make any fucking sense. But setting that aside, they’ve been tasked to go somewhere and accomplish something and I assume it might be important, so it doesn’t really matter if it looks like they’re cowards. They have bigger fish to fry. Also discretion is the better part of valor and all that.

Cagan points out  they’re not running, they’re trying to survive. Br’yan disagrees, but Seth sides with Cagan and they decide to make a run for it, leaving the escort ships to die horribly. Which is pretty much what happens; their ship manages to get through with a few ships following them. But wait! ANOTHER ship appears ahead of them and moves to intercept them. Now they’re really screwed. Seth looks down at his compatriots who are all preparing themselves for death.

Death was not a fear, but failure was. To pass in such a way would mean dishonor and disgrace (page 137).

You’re going to die in service of your country, not out of any fault of your own, but because you were betrayed and ambushed (spoiler alert!). And this will somehow dishonor and disgrace you? Maybe the elves are really petty.

The ship that is coming to intercept them is larger and better-armed than they expected. Seth is worried:

King Mark was better prepared than they thought (page 137).

Wait. So these are King Mark’s ships? How does Seth know that? You’d think that Stanek would at least have a line in there where Seth recognizes a banner and realizes that the ships are under King Mark’s banner, but that would be missing the true genius of Stanek’s writing: not explaining anything. If the reader isn’t confused, Stanek isn’t doing his job properly.

Anyway, if you don’t remember King Mark, he was briefly mentioned by the Queen Mother a little over 100 pages ago. Sathar, the ‘Dark One’ has joined up with King Mark. That’s all we really know. I’m guessing that they’re Evil, though, being Dark Ones and all. I don’t know how Seth realizes that these ships belong to King Mark, though. Maybe he’s just assuming, maybe he actually knows. But we, the readers, do not know. Then again, the first couple times I read this series I didn’t even remember who King Mark was. That’s what happens when you name-drop important characters approximately once every 100 pages without ever explaining who they are or why they matter.

Everrelle, one of the Elves, sends a message to Seth’s mind asking if there are any other Elves on the other ships. At first, Seth is angry at the interruption. Then he realizes there aren’t, which means they must be Men, which means the Elves can kick their puny mortal asses. Hooray! Although I must say it concerns me when a subordinate to one of the heroes spots rather obvious things that the leader never even thought of.

The ships collide and everyone starts to fight.

Their blades clashed with the enemy, and drew crimson blood (page 139).

It’s a good thing that Stanek pointed this out, otherwise I wouldn’t have any idea what color blood is.

Still one group had not moved nor did it seem they had registered the attack. They were the members of the Red and they waited until the mournful screams in their minds reached a crescendo (page 139).

In other words, the elite Elf-warriors, the best of the best, the trained fighters, are standing at the back letting their crew – as in, the sailors – get the brunt of the assault before they actually step into the fray. Classy. Very classy.

More importantly, this doesn’t even make sense. They’re not on a large ship and they don’t have a lot of warriors or sailors. They don’t have lines of troops with front lines and back lines. Even if they decided to wait they wouldn’t be able to stand there for more than a few seconds before the enemy got through the loose line of sailors and started attacking them.

After a bit, the first Brother (Elf) does, and Seth goes a little serial killer:

Seth vowed to spare no suffering on the one who had delivered the deadly blow. With a jump and a kick, the guilty was knocked stunned to the deck, his demise not instantaneous like the others before him. He would be forced to lie and watch with eyes that were purposefully allowed to move as life slowly dripped away. Seth’s blow struck the spinal cord just below the neck on the right side (page 140).

I’m really not sure which part of this bothers me more:

First, that Seth, in the middle of a heated melee, has the time to think and decide that someone who killed one of his brothers deserves an extra-special death. He then has the skill and dexterity (again, in the middle of a frenzied battle) to precisely strike this man in the neck in such a way to knock him, paralyzed, to the ground, but leave him conscious, and not kill him immediately, but also damage him enough that he would die.

Second, that Seth, one of the Heroes of this story, would choose to do something like that. I mean, it’s not like this guy tracked down and murdered one of your friends in cold blood. He’s an ordinary soldier and he’s fighting in the middle of a melee. It’s war. People die. And yes, I know when someone you care about has just died you’re not always rational. However, Seth has just shown that he is extremely rational and very deliberate in what he is doing.

After a few minutes they kill the last of the enemy, leaving Seth, seven of his Brothers, and Cagan alive. However, they’ve been delayed long enough that the two ships that were chasing them have now caught up and they’re about to engage in a much longer, bloodier battle.

Seth spoke to the seven yet fated to remain, words that exited his mind with powerful intent, words that he truly meant. They are what stand in the way of our victory. We cannot fail! We will not fail! Do not still your fervor, nor your fury. We shall make them pay well beyond their expectations. Eight against the many shall be triumphant!

“There are… nine!” shouted Cagan (page 141).

You know how in certain books someone will say something and you’ll realize the deep significance of it and you imagine what’s going to happen next and it makes the scene come together beautifully and powerfully and send deliciously dramatic shivers down your spine? This is the opposite of that.

Chapter Ten – First Lessons

Vilmos wakes up and hears drums. Xith grabs him and puts a hand over his mouth, an idea I can support because it keeps Vilmos from doing something moronic. They sit there for a while and finally Xith says it’s hunters and trackers. Out hunting animals. By beating a drum. Now, maybe it’s just because I haven’t hunted enough, but generally speaking you don’t hunt using a drum because it warns the animals that you’re coming. I suppose in some cases you beat the drum in order to drive the animals into a trap, but in that case, why do they need trackers?

Vilmos asks if he gets to go home soon. In response, Xith launches into a story about a young couple who desperately wanted a baby but couldn’t have one. Coincidentally, Xith knew a young pregnant girl without a father around who would be stoned to death if she was discovered. Who was Vilmos’ real mother, of course. Xith told Vilmos’ adoptive parents that they would raise the boy but someday he would return to take him away.

Vilmos interrupts and says he wants to at least talk to his mother, which is reasonable, since they’re a day’s march away and the reason why Vilmos had to leave in such a hurry was because people were coming to his house to kill him. Xith says he’s never going home again. And points out that Vilmos is wrong about his father:

“He loves you more than the air he breathes. […] Your magic is what brought me to you, Vilmos, and the reason your father was so exacting. He knew your use of magic would only hasten me to your door.” (pages 144-145).

Sounds like a brilliant idea: you’re afraid of losing your son, so criticize and belittle him until he is miserable and hates you! Works every time.

The we get an interesting bit:

There was a distinctive quality to the spoken speech that was consciously inaudible to all save cautioned ears, this was the power of Voice, and Xith played upon its dominion with the touch of a maestro’s hand. – “In your heart, you have always known one day you would leave your home. You know this is true.” (page 145)

I haven’t seen a sentence that grammatically incorrect since I was a writing tutor at a community college. But moving past that, I have a few questions:

  1. How is something consciously inaudible? How can you be aware that you can’t hear something?
  2. What is a ‘cautioned ear’?
  3. Does Voice really have a dominion?
  4. How does Stanek sleep at night after writing sentences like ‘search your heart, you know this is true’?

This Voice, though, will reoccur frequently. Essentially, Xith has a Saruman-like ability to use his Voice, (which is when he speaks in italics) to convince people of something.

Xith formally asks Vilmos to become his apprentice. He tells Vilmos that if he wants, he can decline and return home and if he does the priests will come and murder him and his family. Subtle, Xith. But Vilmos says he’ll go with Xith and they take off.

They walk all day, heading north toward Great Kingdom. The next day, Vilmos asks Xith where they’re going.

“We walk to teach a lesson – your first lesson,” he replied. “The most important lesson of all. There is no simple path to follow.” (page 149).

While I can clearly see how this is the most important lesson anyone can ever learn, Vilmos asked him where they were going. This is one of Stanek’s favorite writing tricks, right after never explaining anything. He’ll have a character ask a question, and then another character respond with something completely unrelated to the subject.

Xith explains it’s too dangerous to teleport to where they’re going. Plus, you have to know exactly where you’re going, and Vilmos doesn’t.

After a bit they have to duck into some tall grasses because a lot of people are passing by. Hundreds of horses and wagons and so on. Time passes. Suddenly Vilmos realizes that Xith is gone.

Xith was nowhere in his eyesight and now Vilmos was really feeling frightened and alone (page 150).

You can tell how serious Stanek is when he breaks out the “really”.

Eventually the company passes and Xith reappears and after some cryptic conversation they keep going, stopping at a cave to spend the night. Xith makes Vilmos gather firewood and then tells him that he’s lost his flint and steel so Vilmos needs to make the fire. Vilmos finds a couple of rocks and bangs them together trying to make a spark with no success. Eventually, after he smashes a few fingers, he gives up. Xith tells him he isn’t trying hard enough. Vilmos gets pissed off. And this begins a Xith Instructional Scene. These scenes happen frequently and they are all approximately identical. They contain:

  • 1. A lot of italics
  • 2. Xith giving generic instructions like ‘search your feelings’ and ‘use the energy’ and ‘focus’.
  • 3. Vilmos saying that he can’t.
  • 4. Xith telling him that he can.
  • 5. Vilmos not understanding.
  • 6. Xith giving more generic, vague instructions, with randomly italicized words.
  • 7. Vilmos reiterating that he doesn’t know how.
  • 8. Xith telling Vilmos not to think, just to do it.
  • 9. Vilmos failing.
  • 10. Xith repeating what he just said.

And so on, and so forth, until eventually…

  • 97. Vilmos gets it.

This wouldn’t be as frustrating except the typical training session lasts for two to three pages and they are always exactly the same, they’re very boring, they don’t reveal anything about the characters, and they add nothing to the story. Also, after the first few successes, you would think that Vilmos would start to realize that Xith knows what he’s talking about, and when Xith tells him to do something, he should just start experimenting with magic and trying to do it instead of bitching about how he doesn’t know how. But Vilmos instead chooses to act like a petulant dumbass.

We also get some awkwardness:

“Draw the energy into you, but slowly. Only build the power that you need,” instructed Xith, watching the boy’s face carefully. “Can you feel it?

Vilmos did as he was told. He drew the power in slowly. “I can feel it!” he exclaimed, “I can feel it!” (page 153)

Alternately, I might just be a pervert.

So eventually Vilmos creates the fire. Hooray! Then they eat supper.

Vilmos’ mind was teaming with questions (page 155).

Teeming, Stanek. Just because Microsoft Word doesn’t flag it doesn’t mean it’s the correct word. That’s what proofreading and editors are for.

That night, Xith tells Vilmos a little history. Back in the day, during the Race Wars, people decided it would be easier to just kill people with magic. So they did. Anyway, some magic-users called Watchers decided to save people with magical ability. Xith, however, is the last of the Watchers, and once he dies, magic will disappear forever.

So I guess Vilmos is fucked.


  2 Responses to “Part 8: A Maestro’s Hand”

  1. Seth was in Elfville and had just been told he had to leave to go somewhere to do something. And he’d just kissed Brother Galan who, despite her name, is female.

    Even ignoring the illogic of being able to breed every other genertation, or something, its being discovered that this elf is one of the few capable of doing so. Why send him off? Where he might be in danger and be killed off? Surely you’d want to keep him close by and more or less imediately starting breeding the next generation of sexless elves.

  2. I think Stanek was trying to be “realistic.” The whole thing about not making clear what the story is, not mentioning important names, and so on, was meant to be naturalistic, I think, trying to depict every day reality. But that can’t possibly work for a FANTASY story!