Six Heirs, the first book in the SECRET OF JI series by Pierre Grimbert, was originally published some years ago in the author’s native French. Sadly, it does not import well, though some of the flaws may be due to translation issues rather than authorial ones.
The novel opens with a captivating story of how several generations ago an enigmatic stranger (is there any other kind?) led a group of emissaries from most of the nations of the Known World to the island of Ji, where they simply vanished. When they eventually returned as mysteriously as they had disappeared, some had died, many were wounded, and none would speak of what they had been shown or where they had been. Over time, the survivors began to gather regularly every other year and share their secret with select “heirs” so that knowledge of the mysterious event wouldn’t disappear as the original participants died off. Returning to present time, it quickly becomes clear that someone has hired a cult of religious assassins to kill off the Heirs of Ji before this year’s gathering can take place. In a few exciting scenes we watch several of the heirs successfully evade being killed and then follow them through multiple viewpoints as the few survivors try to band together for mutual protection and to figure out who is after them and why.
I’m going to start with the most “iffy” of the criticisms and that’s the writing itself. The prose is very simple, repetitive at times, a bit lazy at other times (beginning a run of sentences all beginning subject-verb or “He + verb” for instance), and the dialogue is frequently stilted, sometimes enough to make one wince. Not being fluent in French (Je parle seulement un tres, tres, tres peu), I have no idea of course whether these problems, which are rife, are the fault of the author or the translator. No matter the source, though, they still detract from the reading experience. Beyond the problems with word choice and sentence structure, transitions, especially between POVs, can be abrupt.
Worldbuilding is pretty non-existent. The names of several countries get bandied about, along with a few famous sites, such as the Stone Tree, but there is almost nothing to differentiate one nation from another and we learn next to nothing or nothing at all about any of them, even the ones we travel through; one region may as well be another, a city is just a crowded village, and so forth. One of our characters is a “mage,” though we don’t have any sense of what that means (even when she performs imagery it’s pretty vague) and another can speak to animals, though again, we don’t get a sense of much context regarding that save that it’s a trait shared by some.
Characterization is also relatively thin and conveyed more through telling rather than showing. Besides being vague, the characters can fall into the overly familiar — the grim and gruff skilled warrior, the sarcastic one, the naïve one and so on. As with the geography, they feel distinguished more by title (warrior guy, naïve boy, stressed girl) than by any sense of a true core of personality.
As for the story, as mentioned, it starts out strong, with a compelling tale of that first mysterious trip to Ji and the subsequent even more mysterious return. Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill from there. The series of attempted (or successful) assassinations was exciting at the start, but as we saw more of them they began to feel a little repetitive. Worse, the more we see of these allegedly greatly feared assassins, the more we wonder why they’re so feared, as they don’t seem particularly competent. The plot also feels strangely unbalanced at times, with odd choices with regard to what we’re shown and in what detail. It ends unresolved, not quite a cliffhanger but with the requirement to read on for any real answers.
To be honest, had this not been a review copy, I wouldn’t have finished Six Heirs, putting it down in favor of something else on my groaning To Be Read shelf. And even with that extra sense of reviewer obligation, I strongly considered stopping and just reviewing as a Did Not Finish one. I did finish it, but due to its weak plotting, thin characterization, shallow world-building, and awkward/simplistic writing (which may or not be the fault of the author), I’d advise others to give it a pass.