Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/
Barb chose to read and review The Five Elements by Scott Marlowe
The world is made up of four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This is a fact well known even to Corporal Nobbs. It’s also wrong. There’s a fifth element, and generally it’s called Surprise.
— (Terry Pratchett, The Truth)
I like tropes. They are a wonderful shorthand that tells us immediately what’s going on. You know the ones I mean…
- Will they or won’t they? (If it’s season one/book one of the series—they won’t.)
- The quest. (Save the Chosen One, recover the macguffin, save the world. True love optional.)
- The Morgan Freeman (apparently, he’s in every possible movie as gravitas)
- Beautiful people are good. Ugly ones are either bad or funny. (No fat superspy will ever stop evil/get the girl/save the free world.)
- If you kill the leader of the bad guys, their minions will close up shop and go away.
- The government/big business did it. (Duh)
- Bad guys, outlaws, and imperial stormtroopers can’t shoot worth shit. Unless they are nameless extras, preferably wearing a red shirt, and it’s before the second commercial break. (Double duh)
I especially like it when people play with tropes. Joss Whedon is a master of this one. (Need to kill the evil undead? Use a blonde teenager.) In my review here of Scott Marlowe’s The Killing Knife, I mentioned my admiration for the way he uses tropes in his science fiction/fantasy works. And The Five Elements (The Alchemancer: Book One) is no exception.
When powerful earth sorcerers forsook their vows to harness the earth not with magic, but with science, their brethren struck them down and hunted them to the last. Or so they thought… Now, five hundred years later, one person seeks to carry on the work of those first early thinkers by making the parts of their greatest creation whole again.
Aaron and Shanna fall victim to these ambitions when their home is leveled by a surprise elemental attack. In the ensuing chaos, the two are separated. For Shanna, hardship soon turns to fortune, as she finds herself
embarking upon the greatest adventure of her life. Only the worst of nightmares awaits Aaron. Hunted at every turn, the only thing keeping him alive is his own resourcefulness and an eslar mercenary whose reputation as a killer might make him the worst threat of all.
Though Aaron and Shanna travel different paths, their purpose is joined when they individually learn of the mysterious Fifth Element. Shanna sees it as the final piece in the puzzle that is her destiny. To Aaron’s logical mind, it is an impossible ambiguity. Whatever the answer, the Fifth Element draws them back together and into a final confrontation that will mean the end of everything unless they succeed.
The story begins and ends with an unlikely friendship. Aaron, apprentice to a master sorcerer, is apparently marked for a successful and prosperous life, while best friend Shanna is a waif headed for a low-level, difficult existence. But she is the strong one who rescues him from street bullies and dominates their friendship. When their city and everything they know is destroyed in an attack of cataclysmic violence, Aaron becomes the one person that the powerful sorcerers demand must be saved—and he’s the one target of the attackers.
In a standard fantasy, this would be the signal for the quest. There would be a small band of plucky adventurers who seek the macguffin that will save the world. Along the way, they will reveal the One, destined to save everything in a final battle. Only that’s where Scott Marlowe takes that trope, ties it up in knots, and slices it up the middle. The two friends are torn apart, each to begin separate quests for the
macguffin Four Elements and mysterious Fifth Element that will allow their owner to either save or rule the world.
The Five Elements is an early work by Scott Marlowe, and by no means a perfect one. There is a much more than nodding reflection of works ranging from Lord of the Rings to The Fifth Element movie. The middle of the book is a long slog from one recovered element to another. The genre is pretty much a kitchen sink mashup of high fantasy sword and sorcery, steampunk airships, horror, and paranormal creatures. And then there are the fantasy names that somehow all sound the same, whether they are sorcerer, dwarf, hero, villain: Elsanar, Engus, Ensel, Erlek… Luckily, there is a players list at the front. (Bookmark it—you’ll need it to keep score.)
Despite the wealth of detailed description and the length of the book, there were some things that were glossed over. For example, somehow the evil savant Erlek’s knowledge of just where each of the elements was located and how to find them was brushed off as the fruits of long research. And because the cast was just so huge, we never really get to know most of the characters or their motivations.
I was hovering at three stars, but there were two things that made me go for four. First, the pace picked up as the two opposing quests raced to a confrontation. Second, and far more interesting, was the way the book sets up the inevitable clash between best friends Shanna—a passionate waif with a lifetime of abuse and resentment—and Aaron—a scholar trained to apply logic and science to solve problems. The question the book asks is whether passion or logic triumphs when friendship and love are the stakes.