Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Red Sky at Dawn by D.A. Adams

I read Red Sky at Dawn over a feverish eight hours. I started it after I got home from a Saturday night at Dragon*Con that you can read about below, too keyed up to go to bed, figuring I'd check out the first chapter over a goblet of cheap red Wal-Mart wine. But instead I read until I was exhausted and then finished it up later as I recuperated in the afternoon.

In the interest of full disclosure: I got this book for free. Well, that makes it sound tawdry. Put it this way, he's a friend of mine, even if I did call him by the wrong name for practically the whole of Hypericon. So when I ran into him on the sidewalk a block up from the Sheraton at D*C he laid this book on me. I'd made pretensions of buying the book from him - I don't like charity - but he insisted for the review I did on book one. So thanks, man.

Though I wouldn't really call the ending of BoD a cliffhanger (I thought he could have ended it there, frankly), Adams neatly sidestepped the problem of a slow start by picking up right where the action left off in the first book. Scratch that - he dials it back a bit and picks up with the character of Suvene, an orc guard on the Slithesythe plantation,  where the battle at the end of BoD takes place. Right away I knew we were in for some good stuff. One of Adams' strengths is shifting perspective. He's never willing to have any of his characters be totally evil or totally good (except maybe Kwarck the hermit). Adams modeled his orcs after antebellum Southern slaveholders, which no doubt provided a strong temptation to paint them with a broad brush. Even in the first book, though, he refuses to make it so easy - "[Children] are a joy," says the orc planter, discussing his family as Crushaw infiltrates the house in the guise of a general.

And so it is in Red Sky. Suvene is a lot of things but you can never really call him evil. His strong sense of honor, and the lengths he goes for friendship, make him more complex than I think many authors would have dared attempt for fear of getting anywhere near the whiff of "Lost Cause" nostalgia. Time will tell if Adams is growing himself a villain here. I know for damn sure Suvene will be back in book 3 if only because it would be damn stupid not to include him. In fact one complaint I had was that there was not quite enough of him in this one. But there was a lot to pack in and you had to cut somewhere.

That's the  thing about these books. Honestly I think you could have combined these first two into one jaw-buster of a tome worthy of all your Rogue's Gallery of fantasy writers. Even if you didn't I feel like both books could have been packed with more and still not lost your interest. Something about these fantasy books seems to make them easy to just keep expanding even beyond Bible-size (which is a benchmark to me). This cuts both ways, but when you write interesting characters and set them in a reasonably-different but not too-alien world, I think you got gold there. I know I could have stood for a book twice as long this time around.

In fact I guess that's my main complaint about it. Adams introduces a whole damn new race that we barely get to meet - who have discovered yet another path to a political utopia (in Adams' world, the utopias seem to outnumber or at least equal the flawed states). But then, whoosh, we gotta be moving on. It makes sense for the plot and I didn't disagree with it, but I found myself wondering why something couldn't have delayed our party of adventurers there somehow. Combine that with the short shrift Suvene gets, and the cliffhanger ending, and the book feels like it should've been maybe ten or twenty-k words longer.

Adams loves to end his books on cliffhangers, obviously. I don't completely agree with it - I think books come out too infrequently to really justify the cliffhanger. To me, that's something you pull if you're doing an old Republic serial or something like it, maybe a comic book. Because the wait is not that long. It's usually just long enough to make you crazy to find out what happens next, but if you wait too long, it loses its effectiveness. I would have preferred an ending that wraps up the action and sets up the next book, giving you a feeling of resolution while still letting you know there's more to come. I'll admit he gets close, but it felt like he wanted it to be more cliffhanger, more "To Be Continued ..." and less of what I'd consider a more normal transition between novels in a series.

Well, admittedly I'm searching for gripes just because that's my forte and because I don't want to let him off too easy. Overall it's a great book and continues the series well. Good pacing, prose that's lean without being sparse, well-drawn characters that don't push my hate buttons, solid combat. That's the Adams formula and if there is any justice one day someone will do an airbrush of, say, Crushaw fighting a shitload of orcs on the side of a sweet custom van. Oh, and a movie. And some of those "action figures" that cost thirty bucks, that would be cool. Basically Brotherhood of Dwarves as a series deserves to be treated as a hot property and read over turgid summers by pimply tweens everywhere.


Get Red Sky at Dawn at Amazon, it's worth the ten bucks and to me that's a five-star review. And we'll see ya next book.

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