New Zealand author Lyn McConchie has written several novels with Andre Norton in that author’s WITCH WORLD and BEAST MASTER universes, so I was surprised that The Questing Road, though officially McConchie’s first solo fantasy novel, actually reads much like a debut novel. While there are a few moments of charm and sparkle, the characters are so flat, and the writing so uneven, that I would have easily believed this to be someone’s first attempt at a novel.
The story starts with two separate groups of travelers who, unwittingly, step through a portal into a different world. The first group was attempting to rescue a captured tariling (a young “felinoid” or cat-shaped sentient); the second just wandered into the portal while out on a stroll, nominally to search for their cat’s sire.
My very first inkling that The Questing Road wouldn’t work for me came when neither group really seemed to panic, or even worry overmuch, at suddenly finding themselves in an alternate dimension (despite the fact that, later in the novel, we learn that such portals are extremely rare). Aside from worrying whether the local food is edible, they basically just shrug and decide to get on with business, even when a bit later they are visited by a goddess and granted the power to understand the local language. This gift handily allows them to sneak up on some travelers’ camps to listen in on their conversations and so find out about the new land’s history and layout. See how easy it can be to survive in an alternate dimension?
Eventually the two groups meet up and decide to work together with a couple of local traders, especially when it becomes clear that the captured tariling may be used as a sacrifice to summon the kalthi, horrible monsters from yet another dimension but tied into the land’s history…
The main issues with The Questing Road are both the quantity and quality of the characters. In terms of quantity — well, there are a lot of them. In the first few chapters we meet the captured tariling’s parents (who confusingly don’t make another appearance later on), then the first group of travelers (a couple and their niece), the second group (another couple, one of their family members, their master-of-arms, and two servants), the two traders, and two slavers (plus two of their staff members). That’s well over 15 people, which in itself wouldn’t be a problem (it’s actually low compared to some epic fantasies), except that here they’re being introduced too quickly and without sufficient detail to make them real and recognizable to the reader. They all have some dialog, and after a few chapters you’ll remember who’s who without having to page back and refresh your memory, but unfortunately none of them ever attain the level of detail you’d expect of main characters, and instead they all appear as flat as side-characters throughout the novel.
Another distraction is the quality of the writing, which is filled with run-on sentences and generally choppy prose. The dialog is occasionally entertaining, but often feels bland and uninspired, as if the (already one-dimensional) characters are just going through the motions. There are frequent p.o.v. shifts, not just from chapter to chapter (which is perfectly fine) but also within the same chapter, e.g. you may be reading about one of the traveling groups setting up camp and then suddenly, almost in mid-sentence, switch to the perspective of the bandits who are preparing an attack on the camp (explaining their tactics), then back to the travelers who have noticed the impending attack and are preparing defences. As a result, all the tension is sucked from the scene, because the reader knows more or less everything that’s about to happen. Another scene has one of the couples worrying that they should have left their younger niece at home because of the dangerous circumstances, then switches abruptly to the niece realizing she’d have to watch out for the older folks. These clumsy shifts in perspective spell out everything for the reader and give The Questing Road a cartoon-like style.
On the positive side, the history and political set-up of the land, while not entirely original, is interesting and more sophisticated than you’d expect, based on the rest of the novel. The story is told at an easy-going pace, and despite a few slow-downs there aren’t many boring moments. And finally, this review would be remiss if it didn’t point out the striking cover illustration by Dan Dos Santos, which is sure to catch some eyes in the bookstore.
In general though, I couldn’t get over The Questing Road’s weaknesses and had trouble staying motivated enough to finish the novel. When the ending turned out to be as uninspired as the rest of the novel, I found myself wishing I’d given up earlier.