Leaves of Flame: Does what any good second book should

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBenjamin Tate 1. Well of Sorrows epic fantasy book reviewsLeaves of Flame by Benjamin Tate

Leaves of Flame is the follow-up to Well of Sorrows by Benjamin Tate (pen name of Joshua Palmatier) and while it isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, since Well of Sorrows was one of my favorite reads last year, that’s a pretty high bar to meet. The sequel has more issues in terms of pacing and organization, but still remains a good novel and its latter third or so is especially strong. And it certainly avoids the dreaded “bridge book” syndrome.

The sequel picks up decades after the events of Well of Sorrows, though we’re still with our main character from book one — Colin — thanks to the time-related magic he employs, making him relatively ageless physically. And, thanks to the fact that the Alvritshai race is extremely long-lived, his closest companion from the first book, Aeren, returns as a major character, though somewhat older and now burdened by responsibilities of lordship and family. This leap forward in time allows some major events to have transpired in between the books and this happens not just this once but a few times early on as the reader leaps ahead years and decades with Colin. This does take some getting used to, but eventually the story settles into a more typically straightforward and constrained chronology. And although it was a bit abrupt at times, I found myself liking how Tate used the time jumps to let major events happen offstage and set the stage for more urgent plot points.

The three humanoid species — the Alvritshai, the Dwarren, and humans — have co-existed since the events of Well of Sorrows in a relatively productive if at times uneasy peace. Early on, they had to deal with attacks by the Shadows and their creations the Wraiths, but Colin finds a means of protecting the three lands from the threat (his creation of said protection is one of those offstage events, though we do see it employed). Unfortunately, the protection lasts for less time than he’d planned on as the Shadows seem to have found a way to weaken his wards. He must figure out what the Shadows have done and also what they plan before the protection breaks down completely and the three lands are overrun.

Well of Sorrows was, as I said in my review of that novel, a deliciously slow unfolding of story. Slow for sure, but never problematically so, with no lagging moments or scenes. Leaves of Flame, after the early jumping around in time, is also slow to develop, but less effectively so. The pace isn’t as smooth or effortless and there are definitely times where the novel lags here and there. A judicious paring of 50-70 pages would have done wonders for it, I think. No large-scale editing of storylines, no slicing out of dozens of pages in a row — none of the separate storylines lagged quite that much — but several pages here and there at various points in each of the storylines, and especially in one or two, would have strengthened the book.

There are, in fact, a lot more storylines here. We follow Colin on several excursions as the consistent main character, but at times we also follow Aeren when they are separated; Aeren’s wife; Aeren’s son; Lotaern, the head of the Alvritshai religion; the Dwarren clans; a civilian refugee; a Legion officer, and a few others. We even get a point of view from the Wraiths’ side of things. At various times each of these storylines feel a bit overlong or overly detailed and the movement between them isn’t always handled smoothly, but things settle down toward the latter third and the book really comes into its own, becoming much more urgent and compelling and focused.

Magic plays a stronger role in Leaves of Flame than in Well of Sorrows, and I missed some of the Western/Colonial feel of book one. Leaves is much more firmly ensconced in the traditional fantasy structure in many ways: there is a quest; a lengthy, somewhat fraught journey; an abandoned yet horrific underground area; a climactic battle scene; magical weapons; etc. They’re all handled well, they don’t feel clichéd as one reads them, but the novel also doesn’t have quite the same level of fresh appeal that Well of Sorrows had. That said, the underground journey scene is handled in original fashion and is quite strong, one of the highlights of the novel.

Colin is more desperate in many parts of the novel, but a bit oddly removed as a character at times. The same holds true for Aeren, Lotaern, Aeren’s wife and son, and many others. The villains are especially a bit pallid and prop-like. The most interesting characters are probably one of the Dwarren, whom we don’t meet for several hundred pages, and two humans fleeing the Shadow army, but again we only meet them in the latter part of the book. Perhaps the most intriguing character is a female Wraith, whom we see far too briefly (she’ll obviously be playing a larger role in book three).

The quest itself — actually two of them — felt a bit perfunctory, almost as if we’re tossed it because it’s a fantasy and so a quest journey is expected. And there’s a bit of a head-scratching lack of insight on Colin’s part with regard to a relatively major aspect of the threat.

That threat, though, when it becomes much more concrete, really forces the action toward the end and the novel picks up steam in lots of ways: action, character, sharpness of detail, suspense.

Reading through the above, one might reasonably guess I didn’t enjoy Leaves of Flame or found it too disappointing. But that’s actually not true at all. Despite the issues with pacing and some character issues, I greatly enjoyed reading it save for the few parts the story lagged a bit. I read it in a day, most of it in two sittings, which gives some sense of that enjoyment. If I pick up a book and keep putting it down, I’ve got big problems with it. If I knock it off in one or two sittings, not so much. Leaves of Flame ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but rather than feel cheated, I simply wanted to keep going. Had book three, tentatively titled Breath of Heaven, been available for download on my Kindle at 3:00 a.m., I would absolutely have downloaded it and simply kept going. Leaves of Flame isn’t as good as Well of Sorrows, lacks a bit of that first book’s originality and freshness, and thus is somewhat disappointing. But it’s a good read in its own right and does what any good second book should: ends with me wanting more and as soon as possible. The series remains highly recommended.

Wrath Suvane — (2011-2012) Publisher: An epic tale of a continent on the brink of war, and a deadly magic that waits to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Colin Harten and his parents had fled across the ocean to escape the Family wars in Andover. But trouble followed them and their fellow refugees to this new land, forcing them to abandon the settled areas and head into unexplored territory — the sacred grounds of a race of underground dwellers and warriors. It was here that they would meet their doom. Driven to the borders of a dark forest, they were attacked by mysterious Shadow creatures who fed on life force. Only Colin survived to find his way to the Well of Sorrows — and to a destiny that might prove the last hope for peace in this troubled land.

Benjamin Tate 1. Well of Sorrows 2. Leaves of FlameBenjamin Tate 1. Well of Sorrows 2. Leaves of Flame


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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