Wit’ch Fire was a genuine impulse buy. I had read no reviews nor received recommendations — I was simply in the bookshop, liked the cover and plot synopsis on the reverse, and listened to my gut. Foolhardy, perhaps, but sometimes fortune favours the bold. This time, it did.
Wit’ch Fire is the first of a series of five books by James Clemens, also known to mystery and adventure fans as James Rollins and to others as the former veterinary surgeon Jim Czajkowski — his real name. The series — his first in fantasy — is called The Banned and the Banished, and is concerned with the adventures of a young girl, Elena Morinstal. But before I begin to talk about her, the prologue and its fictional foreword deserve a mention.
The opening line of the book is “First of all, the author is a liar.” This I found an unusual and interesting way to introduce yourself to the world of fantasy literature, and while I have read better introductions to a novel, I have seldom been so grabbed by one. The prologue itself is similarly effective at reeling in its new reader, as it describes the last, desperate attempt of the last mages of the land of Alasea to save their land from the invaders — a group called the Gul’gotha, lead by their Dark Lord. Needless to say, they fail (or it would be a very short book), and the land is conquered.
Now the next little patch is clichéd to say the least, with a small twist — young girl, idyllic pastoral scene, early adolescence, coming of age event after which she discovers she has magic (or magick, as Clemens spells it) powers. Not dramatically original, apart from the female lead, and Clemens is hardly unique in using a girl. The name of the nearest town is not original either — fans of A Song of Ice and Fire will be familiar with the name Winterfell, certainly. I was initially disappointed at this stage, thinking that this would be standard fare I had read a dozen times over.
But, the quality upturned rapidly.
No sooner has her strange new power awoken before Elena’s life is forever changed in dramatic and profound ways. Now this may not be hugely original in and of itself, but the manner in which Clemens does it is what really grabbed me and did not let go until the end of the series.
Clemens has a slightly odd writing style for fantasy which I largely credit to his background in adventure stories. That is, that he can spend a great deal of time covering the events of a very brief passage of time — in fact, most of Wit’ch Fire covers less than two days, and at nigh-on five hundred pages, that could be considered overly detailed. However, that is not the case. Clemens is almost the antithesis of Robert Jordan — you will find few lengthy descriptions of every detail of settings, surroundings and the point-of-view character’s innermost feelings. He paints his picture then lets the events flow at pace. At breakneck pace, to be frank, as the drama comes thick and fast. This is certainly not a fantasy novel for those of nervous disposition. Clemens utilises some truly horrible foes to put his creations in mortal peril almost constantly, and the result can, on occasion, lead to sweaty palms and trembling. The pay-off is that one can glance up at the clock and realise they have been reading for two hours non-stop under the impression that only a few minutes had past. He really can grab you that hard.
Naturally, this being a fantasy novel, Elena needs a posse — not because she is a girl, but because she is a child, it should be pointed out — Clemens is most definitely not sexist. While the posse concept is clichéd, Elena’s posse in and of itself is not. From the one-armed swordsman (whose identity is a spoiler) to shape-shifters to og’res to el’vin (not quite elves, but similar enough for them to feel comfortable and familiar) she gains one of the more varied backing groups — both in terms of race and individual personalities — I have come across. And, despite their vows of undying devotion, the loyalty of some may be more questionable than is apparent to our heroine, as she sets out on her quest to defeat the Dark Lord of the Gul’gotha and free Alasea, her homeland.
Some of the characterisation is very good here, some is not. Elena manages to avoid the stereotypical adolescent persona by the skin of her teeth, and Kral, a character who becomes entangled in her adventures early on, is so simple and one-dimensional he could almost be a Klingon. Other characters, such as the one-armed swordsman I mentioned previously, and Tol’chuk an og’re, are much better, demonstrating several aspects to their personalities and a depth of interest beyond the traps characters of their type can snare authors in. Sufficed to say, however, that you will not find a Tyrion Lannister, a Mara of the Acoma or a Parmenion of Sparta in Wit’ch Fire — the pace is simply too rapid for such high realisation of personality to be made apparent. This is not a flaw of the author, in my opinion, it is simply a fact of fast-paced writing — you sacrifice detail of protagonists and setting to make the plot more interesting and exciting.
The world of Alasea, and its use within the novel is unfair to judge — Wit’ch Fire scratches the surface of a large, moderately detailed fantasy reality, and nothing more. The four books that complete the saga flesh it out greatly, and while it is not as complete or well-realised as Feist’s Kelewan or Eddings’ Aloria — let alone a Middle-Earth or Forgotten Realms — it is still a fairly good attempt at creating a new fantasy world and he uses it progressively well as the series evolves.
In short, with my critic’s cap on, Wit’ch Fire is a good book with some obvious clichés and few innovations that is saved by the style and pace of its author, rather than a genuine classic. It is this cap that gives the book three-and-a-half stars and no more. Having said this, the part of me that adores fantasy in its purest, most escapist form, tells me I have enjoyed few books as much as this, and wants to rate it higher. The series improves as it progresses (although the fourth book does lull slightly) and all subsequent chapters would rate slightly higher as more original concepts come in, the plot becomes more interesting, the characters fill out and the scale becomes grander, transforming what initially feels a heroic fantasy in the Gemmell mould into a more epic fantasy.
I greatly enjoyed Wit’ch Fire, and it’s sequels are better. It has its flaws, and original it is not, in many ways, but a fun read and dramatic it most certainly is.