I’m back with another Extended Thoughts, this time with Johnathon Moeller’s Ghosts in the Flame. The shorter version is already up, for your reading pleasure.
Title: Ghost in the Flames
Series: (Book 2) The Ghosts
Author: Johnathon Moeller
Genre: Fantasy (Sword-and-Sorcery)
Release Date: December 2, 2013
As per usual, these Extended Thoughts are more rambling than my regular reviews, but that way it’s got more of my true emotion in it- that extra bit of visceral-ness can really help to express just how challenging this book was for me.
Oh, and massive spoiler territory. Naturally.
I’d like to start off with the main point of my shorter review. And that’s that the one thing you really can’t do to either sword-and-sorcery/adventure works or works in an episodic series— you cannot make them boring boring. It’s the ultimate sin that kills interest much more than bad writing ever could. Around the 60-70% mark in the novel, I was actually becoming angry at how little the narrative was doing, how nonexistent its pacing was, how frustratingly little the characters seemed to develop, and how flat and one-note the world was. It felt like I was reading the clip-notes version of a larger narrative with everything more complicated than throwing knives and bickering about which obvious villain was the actual villain (which was, incidentally, also obvious).
Alright, here we go then, into detail.
So, Kalastus is clearly the main villain and always has been. Pyromancers, relatively early on, were described as being powerful in sorcery and mentally unhinged to the point of madness. There is only one character in the entire novel who fits that description. Kalastus even has instances where he is clearly behaving like a man who has lost most of his mind. While also using very powerful sorcery. But Ark, paragon of intelligence he is, however, only kept suggesting that the Sons of Corazain, the religious cult based around the Saddai fire god that would be such an obvious villain that no self-respecting narrative would have chosen to be primary villain, must be responsible because they like fire or something. His reasoning was flimsy, at best. So, in the end, Caina was right all along and the villain was in the Magesterium, even though the real kingpin was in her face the whole time.
She really isn’t particularly bright, is she? And Ark’s no 9-watt either.
To wrap up what I wanted to say about the book being an awful bore, I remember my own writing, back when I was still getting a handle on the long-hand form of novel writing, being something like this. As in, the plot didn’t so much advance as it went in ever-widening circles, so advancement of the narrative was almost totally accidental or unintentional. I started to get internally enraged every time Caina had yet another dinner to go to or was attacked yet again in the street by the Sons or snuck out at night yet again (and we mustn’t forget to detail exactly what cloths [always the same] she puts on before doing so) to spook people and sneak around. Naturally, I was almost livid by the time I finished the book. Livid and bored. It was a surreal combination of emotions, none of them good.
To elaborate just a bit further, though, I will say that this book at least had the potential to be an intriguing and interesting entry into the series, mostly in regards to the plot. Caina really only ever did what I outlined above. Her disguise as Countess Nereide was never fully utilized, in that we were never able to see the rest of the city or the culture dominating people’s lives. Caina could have gone to a funeral, library, workshop, dry dock, or out into the countryside instead of just going to dinner every other chapter. Even the religious service Caina attends in the latter half of the book is only used to further the plot, albeit very minimally. Now, for a countess to do some of the aforementioned things would be strange and would likely blow Caina’s cover. Which is why the disguise of Countess NAME needs to go. Immediately. It was already used once in the Child of the Ghosts, it doesn’t need to make a reappearance from here on out. It restricts Caina to doing the same things I just outlined. Or, the Countess shouldn’t be Caina’s only disguise. It’s already long overstayed its welcome. As has her personality and character as a whole. Unfortunately, since I think she’s on the cover of the rest of the 12+ books in the series, I think her removal is a bit of a pipe dream.
But I have a right to dream, darnit!
There are only heroes and villains in Ghosts in the Flame. A character is either good and fights for good or evil and does the opposite. A notable exception to this rule are the handmaidens that follow Caina (disguised as Countess Nereide). But, given their extremely tertiary role, perhaps this is expected. Otherwise, eventually everybody takes a side to either be fully on the side of the good or fully on the side of evil. Naturally, their swift justice (or rewards) is dealt out by the end of the book. I suppose this should leave a fulfilled feeling inside come the book’s conclusion, but since I can be reasonably sure now that each book in the series will essentially be starting anew, I’m grimly expecting what happened in Child of the Ghosts and now Ghost in the Flame to happen all over again.
Ephaeron was one such character who I felt could have offered an interesting personality to the novel. Being a member of the Magisterium, a supposedly entirely-evil and corrupt government composed of magic-users and their ilk, Ephaeron could have very well been an interesting exception to this almost cartoonishly antagonist organization. Ephaeron, from his first appearance in the book, seems level-headed, rational, and not a terrible person. This was probably his first failing. In the Ghosts series, it seems if you aren’t a hero (or tertiary character) and if you aren’t prepared to help the side of good (Read: The Ghosts), you are automatically a villain. There are no neutral characters who are simply flawed individuals who sometimes to do the right thing and sometimes do the wrong thing.
Speaking of the characters, Caina is one of the prime examples I have nowadays for a ‘convenient conscience’ character. That is, one who only seems to have a conscience or regrets about what he/she’s done when it’s convenient to the plot. Caina, in Ghosts in the Flame, has a few moments of emotional pain because of all of the people she’s killed. And, to be fair, she is very adept at killing the regular folk employed as guards or destitute and disenfranchised people who are clinging to their beliefs, now perverted by hatred and rage. And yet, she seems to be much less efficient at actually killing the real villains in charge.
This is exemplified by this exact quote from the book. Brace yourselves:
“’Those men we killed tonight,’ said Ark, his head on the pillow, his eyes staring at nothing. ‘Do you regret it? Does it weigh upon your conscience?’
‘Do I feel guilty about it, you mean?’ said Caina… ‘No. Not at all. We were only defending ourselves. If we had not fought back, they would have killed us both. But do I regret that we had to kill them?’ Caina sighed. ‘Yes, I regret it. Keenly…’”
I had to read that over about three times before I was convinced I didn’t just hallucinate those two paragraphs. Let’s attempt to nevermind the fact that Caina here essentially is saying that she regrets killing people but doesn’t regret it at all, and examine the greater context and consequence of a character like this. I see this kind of ‘convenient conscience’ characters more and more often nowadays since darker fantasy seems to be in vogue recently. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, a ‘convenient conscience’ character is only that claims to be burdened by all the mass murder he/she commits, but only when the plot demands it. That is, we as readers are only ever assured that the character isn’t an amoral killer because we’re informed otherwise periodically. However, real psychological trauma doesn’t wait for a quiet bit of downtime to reveal itself. Cognitive dissonance, traumatic flashbacks, and crippling feelings of regret can come on at any time and render an individual a shaking, useless mess.
Not like I’m speaking from experience or anything.
Besides that, though, if Caina hates what she has to do, then why doesn’t she find some kind of way to improve her life? I have little sympathy for characters who hate what they do yet make no attempts to change things for the better. And you may (rightly) say, “But the Ghosts are the Emperor’s assassins. How can she not kill people?”
How indeed? Wouldn’t it just be stunning to see what the author could come up with that would astound and bedazzle us with all of his creative cunning? It is possible. And such a thing would bring Caina’s character out of the doghouse of mediocrity it’s in right now.
Also, Caina’s lack of concern for the Saddai beyond a professional level, is a little worrying. I found myself getting frustrated with her for not realizing that the Sons of Corazain were so numerous and rowdy because of their mistreatment at the hands of the Lord Governor. However, no sympathy ever extends to them— fittingly then, Caina has no inner thoughts about the world at large or her own interpretation of it. Oftentimes, it feels like the world of Caina extends about five feet around her in any given direction. While this kind of construction could be used to show a character being out of touch with the world at large, Caina shows no real interest in anything extending beyond her current mission and nothing is given to us, as readers, to make us believe that the author intended her state of mind to be a larger statement on anything. As far as I can tell, the world is just viewed through a pinhole by Caina and, by effect, us readers. This gives everything she does a very sociopathic kind of feeling, as she doesn’t understand anything beyond her mission and immediate danger. And whatever apocalyptic power is now being set against her. A mindset of extremes, I suppose. Though, it doesn’t much help her character any. Or the world around her.
Even the basis of the entire plot, the return of a Saddai Ashbringer, an extremely powerful pyromancer, is flimsy. Even re-reading that sentence after writing it, I was shocked at how flavorless it all is on the surface. Pyromancy, the magical art of creating and using fire, is some of the most straightforward and common magic used throughout the collective high fantasy mythos. Casting fire is, to most readers, neither impressive nor intimidating. Now, that preconception can be subverted. In fact, doing so can be a good shock to the readers’ systems, putting them on edge and opening their minds to new ideas. Traditional Western-style dragons, now mostly seen as an intermediate-level challenge for a hero to slay, are sometimes treated in such a way. When separated from the high-fantasy roots, an armoured, fire-breathing winged monster with an insatiable appetite is very threatening. Pyromancy could have been played in much the same way; even magical fire catches, burns, spreads, and devastates just like it does in the real world. So, rather than random acts of lighting people on fire, the pyromancy in Ghost in the Flame could have shattered expectations of something so common in fantasy literature and drawn more real-world parallels to make the plot more compelling.
As a sidenote, I was apparently correct in my last review of Child of the Ghosts; Every primary antagonist from here on out is going to have some kind of world-ending power, which is likely just the pinnacle of the new magical flavour of the day. In Child, it was necromancy and in Flames, it was pyromancy. Ghosts in the Blood will prominently feature blood magic, I bet my best nickel on it.
And I know this is nitpicking, but Rasadda, the city focused on throughout the story, is apparently created almost entirely out of black stone and decorated with obsidian. This is ridiculous, considering its arid, sun-soaked climate. All of that black would absorb the heat from the sun like blacktop and would make the city unbearably hot. It’s nitpicking, sure, but when you’re constructing a totally fictional world, some measure of logic needs to be used to make said world believable.
Okay. So that’s about all I have to say about this one. It was a rough ride, make no mistake. However, I’m still holding out hope that the third book will be the saving grace that keeps me reading at least one book later, just to see how Mr. Moeller’s writing style and good writing sense improves over time. Or doesn’t improve, though I’d really rather see him succeed than not.
This is all a little surreal though, considering there’s so many books for the series out, but still. I’ll be there, cheering for the positive change if it comes, even if nobody else is listening.
Because that’s just the kind of person I am!
Ghost in the Blood is up next. And I don’t mind saying, seeing as how I’ve heard over half of it now, that it is already a big improvement.
But how big? And it will it be enough? I dunno! I’ll tell you when I’m done!
Good luck, you brave writer folk!