Book Title: Valley of Embers (The Landkist Saga Book 1)
Author: Steven Kelliher
Release Date: August 2016
Author Website: Steven Kelliher
Purchase Link: Amazon
Plot: The plot. Oh. My. God. The. Plot. I’m going to try my best to sum this up, but…bear with me. It’s a bit of a long-winded doozy. It is not neat and tidy. It is not simple. The main plot is more of a tapestry that is weaved throughout the entire story in piecemeal, and here is what I put together:
Once upon a time, there lived a community in the desert. Some of these people had powers to control fire. These people were denoted as Embers, which is a type of Landkist (land-kissed, get it?). Then one day an evil called the Eastern Dark threatened them, so the King of Embers lead his people out of the desert to safety. They settled in a place called the Valley, who they shared with commoners as well as other Landkist – Rockbled (warriors of impeccable strength that can carry stone shields and weapons) and Faey (mystical healers/seers). After the people settled, the King of Embers sought the aid of a Sage named White Crest (god/protector to the Embers) to help him defeat the Eastern Dark (who is also a Sage, and White Crest’s brother). During the battle, they collapsed part of the land, trapping the people in the Valley and preventing the desert folk from returning home. What became of the King of Embers, the White Crest, and the Eastern Dark remained a mystery.
However, darkness still threatens the Valley. There are periods of time during the year called the Dark Months when the sun barely shines, allowing shadowy creatures (Dark Kind) to come out from a place called The World Apart and attack the homesteads. The Landkist, particularly Embers, fight to protect their communities against them. Once the Dark Months are over and the sun shines again (the Bright Days), the people spend time preparing for the next year’s attack – there is no time of peace.
Fast forward thirty years, and the main characters have settled into a community called Last Lake. It is supposed to be the end of the Dark Months, but the attacks from the Dark Kind are stronger and more numerous than ever, pointing to the return of the Eastern Dark. The main character, an Ember named Kole, fights what he believes is a Night Lord (one of the more powerful Dark Kind), but when they exchange gazes he feels himself ‘being watched’ by something else.
This unsettles him, and the others in Last Lake. But Kole, unlike most people, doesn’t believe the White Crest was ever a protector (he holds him accountable for his mother’s death among other things), and has little faith in the other Sages (there are six total, and are supposedly at war with one another). His beliefs put him at odds with most of the residents, but everyone agrees that, whether Kole is right or not, the White Crest must be found in hopes to aid them again (if he’s alive).
Kole leaves to find the White Crest. However, he is attacked by a Sentinel (another powerful Dark Kind), which forces him to return to Last Lake in a bad state. In his absence, his friend Linn gathers a half-dozen warriors – three Embers, the hunter Nathen, and the Rockbled Baas – to seek out the White Crest. Along the way, they are attacked by the Dark Kind, and another Sentinel manages to ‘turn’ one of their Embers, Larren, against them. Larren kills one of the other Embers, isolates Baas, and forces the others (Linn, Nathen, and Jenk the last Ember) into the caverns beneath the raging River F’rust.
Kole recovers and decides to leave again. He is attacked along the road, but manages to make it to a stronghold called Hearth, which has been repeatedly assaulted by the unending Dark Kind. However, his previous battle with the Sentinel awakened a sort of ‘super strength’ (‘chosen one’) in Kole, making him one of the most powerful and effective Embers ever to live. Despite Hearth’s need of Embers, he decides to continue his quest to find the White Crest, aided by another Ember named Misha.
Linn, Nathen, and Jenk make it out of the caverns and into a sort of hilltop paradise, and awaiting them is Larren, who supposedly kills Nathen and Jenk and captures Linn. Nathen turns out to be alive and rescues Linn. During their escape, they discover that other creatures (Dark Hearts) are ‘feeding’ the Dark Kind, causing their increase in power/assaults. Nathan and Linn quickly defeat them, which marks the end of the Dark Kind’s continued besiege against the Valley and allowing the Bright Days to resume. They run outside, are confronted by Larren, and just when all hope is lost Jenk comes to their rescue.
Kole and Misha eventually find a cavern that is home to the Rockbled. A dozen Rockbled accompany them to the hilltop paradise in time to see Jenk battle Larren. There is a big battle and Kole and his group kill the Sentinel/Larren, and he reunites with Linn.
Then the White Crest shows up and battles Kole, and has other creatures battle Kole’s companions. During all of this, the White Crest reveals his scheme:
See, the White Crest, fearing the Eastern Dark would turn the Embers against him, decided to use the Dark Kind to get rid of the Embers before this could happen (or use the Dark Kind to battle-harden the Embers – it goes back and forth). And the Eastern Dark turned the King of Embers against the White Crest during the battle mentioned in the beginning, forcing the White Crest to flee. The Eastern Dark then sent the Night Lords against the White Crest, but the White Crest destroyed them, but in doing so the White Crest fell into a slumber, and when he woke he had control of the Night Lords, the Dark Kind, the Corrupted – and then decided to destroy (or strengthen) the Embers. Meanwhile, the Eastern Dark and the King of Embers were trying to recruit another army in The World Apart and as the same time destroy the other Sages who might rise against him. The White Crest wants Kole’s help in defeating the Eastern Dark, but Kole, seeing the White Crest as corrupted, refuses.
The battle continues and Kole wins, but then the King of Embers shows up and disrupts the battle, targeting the White Crest. Before the King of Embers (fueled by the Eastern Dark, I think) can finish the White Crest, another conversation about schemes takes place:
It turns out the Eastern Dark wanted the White Crest to overcome the Night Lords and become corrupted, hoping he’d then corrupt/destroy the Embers – one less obstacle to overcome along The Eastern Dark’s way to defeating the other Sages. It gets a bit convoluted here, mainly about who/what the Dark Kind and the World Apart are, but it’s also very easy to lose track as to who is talking and what the deeper plot is. (To be honest, I read this over several times and I still don’t know what’s going on.)
After the King of Embers kills the White Crest, he attacks Kole. Linn is then somehow blessed with acute vision and helps Kole force the King of Embers into a retreat. There is another character introduced here who retreats with the King of Embers, who is hinted to be the Eastern Dark’s sister. Then after more talk/warning/threats are made, everyone goes home with the resolve to find the other Sages before the King of Ember kills them.
That doesn’t seem so bad, does it? Well, if you think the plot above is straightforward and clear…it’s because I only summarized about 50% of the book.
In between all of this, the are other characters in Last Lake who spend every other chapter in between what I summarized going back and forth on whether the White Crest can be trusted or not, or if he ever was trustworthy, or on their side, really, their protector, whether he’s being used, etc. They also speak of Kole’s mother and other things that end up not having any substance to them. And it turns out that this whole mess is Ninyeva’s (a Faey Landkist) fault because she somehow her vision ‘woke up’ the White Crest, and he eventually kills her in retaliation. She is also the one who sent Kole’s mother to her doom.
And then, every other chapter between these are more chapters regarding the battles at Hearth. That’s it – they’re just battles against the Dark Kind, and Hearth always win.
While these chapters mainly serve to provide bits and pieces of plot or character development, overall they come off as ‘dead talk’ because they don’t tend to resolve anything or provide new information. A couple of these chapters were okay, but there were simply too many in between the forward-moving chapters revolving around Kole and Linn, resulting in an already confusing plot being jumbled and interrupted further.
Reading the plot is a patchwork, and unfortunately it is up to the reader to make sense of it in between a lot of chapters that serve little, if any, purpose.
Characters: Let’s break it up this way:
Characters that matter: Kole, Linn, Baas, Iyana, Ninyeva, Talmir, Larren, White Crest, King of Embers.
Characters that should matter, but don’t: Sarise (Kole’s mother), Misha, Shifa (Kole’s dog).
Characters that don’t matter: Everyone else, meaning about two dozen other characters. Two. Dozen. Literally.
I’m not even going to touch upon the characters that don’t matter, save for this: Stories with a lot of characters are going to have less character development overall. All the characters are going to matter less, if at all. While having a lot of characters is possible, their role in the story must be considered before they become actual characters. In a nutshell, there were way too many characters who didn’t matter at all in this story, which took development opportunity away from the characters who did matter.
And as for those characters…
Really, there’s nothing special about any of them.
What I mean is…this is a very plot-centered story, and the characters seem to be caught beneath the wave. There are no relationships, sense of community, or kinship between the characters. No one falls in love (or even has a crush), no one cares about one another, makes a sacrifice for another, betrays one another, flees in cowardice, fights about the best strategy, rallies the troops, or even so much as spares a coin for a beggar on the street. Hell, there’s barely anything that qualifies as a basic character description for anyone. We don’t even have the pleasure of reading the character’s thoughts or feelings about anything going on. The characters just sort of act out the story, blindly going wherever the plot takes them without care for what it might cost them in the end.
There’s also very little, if any, interior motive or stake for any of the characters, save for maybe Kole. Yet, his interior motive comes across as missed opportunity after missed opportunity. One could say he’s out for revenge for his mother Sarise, but because his relationship with his mother was never defined, it’s hard for this to come across as convincing. And he has virtually no backstory with his dog, Shifa, even though she saves his life several times throughout the novel. Even the father-son relationship between Kole and Karin is practically non-existent – they act more like distant friends than parent-child. This could be because of Sarise’s death, but they never have a talk about this. Kole could have had a romantic relationship with any number of the other characters, but nothing came off as even a spark between anyone.
There are no character strengths or weaknesses. There is nothing for anyone to overcome except the big bad, nothing for them to hold on to when all else seemed lost. Every battle fought, the good guys won or escaped. Only characters that didn’t matter died (save for Ninyeva).
I cheered for no one in this story. I felt for no one in this story. I don’t even have a favorite or least favorite character. There is literally relevant nothing to write about for any of them. The characters are, disappointingly, this story’s biggest weakness.
Setting/World Building: The setting and world building are the story’s strongest points by far, probably because it’s merged tightly with the plot. In addition, the author has a very poetic way of writing prose (I’m aware of the irony) and descriptions. The book is bound with passages like:
Cresting the top now, and the sight stole her breath and nearly threatened to send her careening back. The golden pools and sharp black ridges stood out stark and beautiful, but the lands beyond were indistinct as a brushed painting not yet dry.
The fact that he could not hear them was only a testament to their uncanny woodlore. Normally, the forest would be teaming with game, with birds and beasts of every persuasion lending their voices to the canopy, but not now.
(Malapropism not mine, by the way. More on that later.)
As mentioned, the entire plot of the story doubles as world building. Everywhere they go in the story, there is history, a lore, a scene worth describing and exploring. There is a background, a culture molded throughout the course of the story, and thanks to this majestic style of writing, a lot of the context comes alive. You also get a great descriptions of places, magic spells, the Dark Kind, the sunless sky and moonlit glow, the suspicious forests, the rushing cold of water in the River F’rust, and so on. This type of writing eases setting the stage for what’s to come in scene. While this is a bit of a long story, it’s never quite a boring story, thanks mostly to the writing style complementing the scenery and story.
But, alas, it is not perfect. I know I’m bleeding into flow/syntax here, but while this style of writing works for describing scenes and history, it doesn’t work for dialogue or fight scenes. Yet, the author tries anyway…
The fight scenes seem to all be written in slow motion rather that quick jabs, and there are a lot of fight scenes. The fights are important (sometimes), but ultimately aren’t always needed to build the world they live in. It’s obvious the world is at war with the Dark Kind – a battle every other chapter, let only written in this style, isn’t necessary, and seems to be useless filler than subplot.
Also, the dialogue comes across as awkward, distant, or wordy – which could be fine for a character or two, but not everyone. Written in this style, it always felt like the characters were robots – because most had the same voice, none of them had a voice.
And, of course, the final scene were dialogue and fight are hand-in-hand, just drag.
Overall, it’s easy for the author’s personal style to shine when it comes to world-building and setting, but it needs to differentiate when the scene becomes chaotic or characters are talking.
Grammar/Misspellings & Flow/Syntax: This book needed an editing, if just a copy-editing, in a bad way. There were spelling and grammar errors littered throughout (including character names) – sadly, enough for me to admit it’s some of the worst I’ve seen in a finished novel.
I know I just mentioned how great and alive a lot of the description was. Unfortunately, being able to string words in such a harmonious manner doesn’t make an author immune to technical errors in writing a story. For as many graceful sentences as he wrote, there were as many sentences that just didn’t make sense and jarred the narrative, such as:
Young as she appeared – child-like, almost – she was only a Valley bloom Kole’s junior.
Grumbles in the crowd around Bali.
There was something else going on, here.
If not for the slight rise and fall of his chest, you might think him a still image. (Using ‘you’ seems to take on a different view point at this sentence).
The sickening thought that the army scraping at the base of their walls could be their own threatened bile. (I have no idea what this means.)
These were in practically every chapter. In addition, there were quite a few careless, amateur errors such as:
‘Favorite’ words: The words ‘spell’ (as in, ‘sit for a spell’), ‘bubbling’, ‘unceremoniously’, ‘ozone’ and ‘sinews’ were used to the point of annoying.
At least one continuity issue: In the scene where Nathen rescues Linn, she drops the rock she was holding. In the next scene, she has the rock back in her hand.
There’s also one glaring incident of ‘telling not showing’: Towards the end of the book, there is the telling sentence: Their mistake cost the Rockbled archer his life. The next paragraph then proceeds with showing how the Rockbled archer dies.
Coincidental, rather than incidental, world building (also known as ‘making stuff up as we go along’): For example, when Linn, Jenk, and Nathan are stuck in the cavern, Jenk seems to be getting weaker faster than the others – it is revealed here that Embers such as Jenk need the sun, or at least fire, to be healthy. This feature could have been brought up much earlier in the novel, but introducing it in this scene only seems to ‘raise the stakes’ and nothing else. And since Jenk lives, there was no need to worry about this anyway, and it’s never brought up again. A classic example of ‘pseudo-suspense’.
Last, battle scenes and screaming town halls are not the best time for plot development. These types of scenes are often chaotic and tend to cause more confusion than clarity, and seem an awkward scene for people to be sharing plot points.
Bits and pieces of errors like these are acceptable, even dare I say normal, or at least unavoidable at times. But for such a variety of them to be so noticeable throughout the entire novel like this removes the reader from the world, and strikes as carelessness.
Since a lot of these are technical errors rather than developmental errors, an editor would have helped fix most. Instead it’s very clear the author did not use one (or if he did, he should find a different one), and his otherwise majestic writing suffers in its absence.
I also noticed spots of ‘back and forth’ in the flow – something happened in Chapter X to one group of characters, but in Chapter Y a different group of characters came across the activity first, so they need to describe it before it happened in Chapter X, even though Chapter Y came after. This doesn’t help when the plot is so convoluted to begin with, and interrupts the narrative further.
Overall Recommendation: This isn’t a bad story. Yes, it’s a jumbled, hot mess of words lacking any character adhesion and a plot that has no linear direction to it, but it isn’t a bad story – maybe more of a poorly structured, unpolished story. It seems to suffer more from lack of editing than anything else – things that aren’t important drag on, while things that are significant are glossed over, and the spelling/grammar errors riddled throughout strikes as a rushed job, bringing down what is an otherwise rather creative, unique world and plot.
Imagine a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of a beautiful, scenic picture. The author does the courtesy of lining up the straight-end pieces, but everything else is just thrown in the middle. There’s some semblance of a picture, but it needs more work to line everything up and see the beautiful picture for what it is. As I tried to piece everything together, I realized that some of the pieces were for an entirely different puzzle, while some pieces were missing, and in the end, was left an incomplete, fractured picture of what could have been nice to look at – not seamless, but nice.
That’s what this story is like. It is not an easy story to read. It is not a linear story that flows in one direction. The world and its history are magnificently rich, but its characters are hollow puppets with no emotion guiding them. The wording is an elegant song, the syntax a record-scratch every few minutes.
Personally, I’ll be passing on the rest in the series (they’re not published yet). My favorite stories are character-driven, and with such stale characters being the story’s biggest downfall and no excuse for the disruptive technicalities, I’ll seek something else.