Saturday, June 13, 2009

Book Review: The Brotherhood of Dwarves by D.A. Adams

I've mentioned a couple times on here that while I was at Hypericon I picked up this book. I finished it a couple of days ago and now have time to sit down and do a proper review.

Short version: Brotherhood is a fast-paced, story driven adventure that avoids a lot of the pitfalls of fantasy writing. It's done in the modern style, with contemporary-sounding dialogue that's easy to read and flows well. Grabbed me by the end of the first chapter and wouldn't let me go until I was done with it. Buy it at Amazon.

Long version: No one ever seems to write much about dwarves. Out of all your basic fantasy races, they're usually the least understood and probably the most one-dimensional. They're a bunch of hairy dudes what live underground, and when you get them above ground to go on adventure they like to carry around big axes, drink a lot and talk with Scottish accents. There's a lot to like about dwarves just based on this but it's to me a damn shame that even Tolkein didn't seem to get too deep into their culture from what I can remember. He had them have names that rhymed and that was about it. They were kinda like sherpas if you ask me.

So when I saw this book I was thinking, "hey a book about dwarves, this oughta be pretty cool", because I'm a dwarf man. Lots of people like pretty elves in their pretty forests with their bows and Spock ears and shit. Me, I would like to hang out with the dwarves in their awesome underground cities, playing liar's dice, smoking pipes and drinking dwarf whiskey by the light of magical crystals or whatever they use for light down there.

Adams digs a little deeper into dwarf culture. Frankly the first chapter of the book is a tad slow as he tries to get the basics of dwarven culture, society, and taxonomy out the way so that we don't have to worry about it later. This is a well-known problem in writing of this type and I empathize with the man. Still, maybe it's just because I don't read that much fantasy, but

"The dwarves of the western mountains are three distinct races, each offering unique physical characteristics, temperaments, and cultures ..."

Does not exactly grab me by the balls and demand I read more. This is a damn shame, as once Adams has got the whole three races thing wrapped up, along the way briefly outlining the geography of the area and some information about major dwarven cities, he starts the story and it gets way more interesting. So if you're not an asshole like me and read past the first couple of pages you'll find a damn good book that a lot of people who aren't your typical fantasy fans have also enjoyed, to read the Amazon reviews.

Roskin, the hero, is the son of the king of this particular dwarven kingdom, populated by the Kiredurks, one of the three dwarven races. But he doesn't fit in well there and longs for glory and adventure. The funny thing about this bunch of dwarves is that they are pretty much the opposite of all the stuff I said about dwarves earlier, and I'm pretty sure this was deliberate.

Fair and tallish for dwarves, the Kiredurks have a rich culture and are not warlike at all, spending most of their time in a rather Utopian society that is reminiscent of a culture out of classical antiquity, equally interested in the physical and intellectual life. In the end they strike me as a more vigorous version of elves, the Romans to the elves' Greeks. This helps give the hero more depth as it's not so easy to put him into the little racial categories out of the D&D handbook. That goes double as it turns out he's half elf, most notable from the fact that his beard is a different color from everyone else's - this is a nice symbolic touch that comes up again and again in the book, but you don't get beat over the head with it.

Roskin's first adventure is to wander through the underground kingdom, updating the maps, and I think this would have been a way better time to throw in some information at least about Roskin's people and where they live. Adams does some of this but I think he could have folded in a lot more from the beginning of the book here. Roskin's mapping expedition turns out to basically be an adventure on training wheels, and that, too, was a little disappointing. It makes sense for the story, since Roskin is heir to the throne and this turns out to be part of his education (his father lets him think it's some sort of punishment for being something of an outsider and not so great at his studies or music). Adams didn't have a lot of room to stretch here; even though Roskin is suspected of being mad by the populace he gets the royal treatment the whole way. I can't really object to anything Adams does here as I'm not sure I could have done any better, given the setup. I still kept craving for something to happen, though, like Roskin running into some people who don't like him, or him getting caught up in some crazy situation that would have emphasized his outsider nature and his need to get out and adventure.

I should re-iterate that this slowish first chapter is my only real criticism of the book. Adams is basically clearing his throat here, getting us into the world and introducing the MacGuffin, "The Brotherhood of Dwarves", an objet d'art that has a deep cultural significance to the dwarven people that Roskin believes would restore some of their pride as an overall race. There is a whole race of dwarves, the Ghaldeon, that are essentially a conquered people. The other two groups of dwarves are essentially too far west for the Empire to bother taking over, though you get the impression that at some point the Empire is going to roll up on these places. This is also a time to bring up Roskin's cousin Borodin, a son of the fallen Ghaldeon royal family, who spends a short time with them during Roskin's childhood and then leaves to fight the Empire.

Adams resists characterizing this Empire as wholly evil, though we don't get a lot of information about them. But what we do know about them is not all that likeable. Essentially it is the human race, sweeping across the map and subjugating all the demihuman races of the world as it expands outward - this is, of course, the note of doom that is often the underrent of fantasy fiction, the sign that the time of magic and little forest folk and whatever is coming to an end and soon it'll be steam locomotives and factories and all that. I think Adams strikes the right note with his treatment of the human Empire. It's all too typical that you pick up one of these books and you're expected to root against your own race and against what is essentially the progress of civilization. Adams, I think, sees this and thus tries to present the ugly business of civilization moving forward in an even-handed manner.

Roskin's adventure truly begins when he's presented with the challenge to adventure outside the confines of the kingdom for a year to find his "inner peace", which to the Kiredurks is the secret to being a wise and good ruler, the king being the representation of the kingdom itself. Roskin opts to go to find his mother, but secretly he plans to track down his cousin Borodin and get back the statue.

And he's on his way. I don't want to ruin the end of the chapter, because it was such a "holy shit"moment and it really kicks off the book. From that point on, the story rolls along well as Roskin finds his way around the world having adventures. Throughout Adams doesn't let you get bored; even when a lot of time has to pass, something interesting is always going on with the characters and there's always something coming around the next corner that you're anticipating. Adams folds in a little military flavor and fortunately it isn't too much that you lose track of where you are. This would have been another serious pitfall, even with the maps that fantasy books ubiquitously have at the back this sort of thing can get real annoying. Keeping the action centered around the characters and what they're doing and not so much large-unit tactics neatly avoids this problem. And every now and again Adams pulls out something that whips your head around, putting some balls in "high fantasy" - which I guess this book technically is since it's not really in a Conan vein, which would technically be "swords 'n sorcery". I'm not too into categories, though.

An important question for me whenever I'm reading a book is, "is this book manly?" Because if it's not, I'm done. And for Brotherhood the answer is a definitive "yes". Let me put it to you another way - this one slim volume is better than the whole goddamn Wheel of Time series. Yeah, I just wrote that, and I'm not just talking shit.

Overall this book was a great read and I need to get a hold of the sequel, Red Sky at Dawn, because I want to find out what happens next. And that, ultimately, lets you know this book is worth reading.

Check out Brotherhood of Dwarves at D.A. Adams' website, where you can read the first two chapters and buy it off Amazon.

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