Well, I’m back yet again! The internet just can’t seem to get rid of me, can it? This time I’m back with another indie fantasy book to levy my critical powers at! Which is to say, I’m going to make a bunch of words about another bunch of words.
Title: The Girl with Red Hair
Series: The Last War Saga
Author: Michael J Sanford
Genre: Fantasy (action-adventure, sword-and-sorcery)
Release Date: May 7, 2016
Amazon Link: HERE
Spoiler territory ahead, naturally.
Unfortunately, I think The Girl with Red Hair suffers from the ‘average’ syndrome. It felt straightforward, uncomplicated, and average. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being simple or average, but in the fantasy adventure genre, being less than exciting can be just as damaging as a mystery novel with an extremely simple mystery. This adventure is virtually entirely character-based, which makes the world that the people live and adventure in ultimately feel dead.
There was also a bit too much ambiguity throughout most of the novel. Virtually every character had at least one or two major secrets that are kept from the audience through the use of unreliable narration. I’m all for unreliable narrators- they keep a story deeply rooted in the characters and gives questions for the reader to answer. However, when thy become so compounded (and coupled with a world and situations that the characters are largely unfamiliar with) that they begin to confuse the reader, they are no longer doing a service to the story. Instead, it makes it feel more like the story is just deliberately withholding information for a later date.
Some of the solutions to difficult fights felt a bit contrived. For instance, there were rarely ever instances of the characters doing something clever or concocting a plan to outsmart and outmaneuver their numerically-superior enemies. Instead, they would fight as they always did until they were exhausted and some new arrival, usual in the form of Adelaide’s hidden power, would save the day. In short, the heroes never really need to think outside the box or feel truly defeated- everything (Even their imprisonment in the third act) is merely a minor inconvenience, as they’re still physically and mentally fit enough to continue running/adventuring/fighting soon afterwards. It made the whole story feel rather “floaty,” in that misfortune and difficulties only serve to show how powerful and capable the heroes are with their fighting skills, not to actually pose potentially-lethal challenges.
Because this fits into the action-adventure fantasy genre, I suppose this comes with the territory, but it’s still not an excuse: character depth. Because the majority of this story (and most stories like it) is spent adventuring from place to place and fighting various adversaries, there isn’t much time given to the characters to show who they truly are as people. The author claims that The Girl with Red Hair is inspired by a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that he runs, which somewhat explains the way the characters act. That is, they fit into neat archetypes based on recognizable in-game classes: the aloof rogue, the boisterous bard, the withdrawn and experimenting mage, the tough and morally strong fighter. Their personalities feel very safe, emphasizing only familiar aspects. I will note both Alexander and Tannyl as points of particular interest, though.
By the end of the novel, I felt well and sick of Alexander, unfortunately. I’ve surmised that there’s some kind of deeper plot-based reason as to why he’s so obsessed with protecting Adelaide, but unfortunately, this does no favours to his personality and likability. More specifically, he becomes more obnoxious as the story continues as he becomes singe-mindedly obsessed with protecting Adelaide; his entire personality is subsumed by that one desire, making him quite flat and uninteresting to see from his perspective and oftentimes grating to see from an outsider’s (meaning, from the view of another character) perspective.
Tannyl, however, was what I felt to be the best and most developed character in the novel. Even though he was the most plagued with what I outlined earlier regarding excessive ambiguity, his internal struggle felt much more real than the other characters’. That point’s particularly odd when one considers that Tannyl’s original companions, Sachihiro and Jaydan, were much more attached to their homes and families, which were destroyed in the first part of the novel. Whereas the latter characters seemed to get over the traumatic loss of the home and family they’ve known for their entire lives fairly quickly, Tannyl maintained a level of emotional complexity rarely seen in the other characters.
I feel as though I should mention Adelaide too, and I think she just happened to be a victim of circumstance with me; the last two indie fantasy novels I read both heavily featured a small, mysterious girl with godly powers and an innocent mindset. So, I was unfortunately turned off to her quite quickly. Looking beyond that immediate reaction though, which is actually a reason why I waited until now to release this review to try to remove that bias as much as possible, Adelaide unfortunately mirrored both Alexander’s single-minded pursuit of one goal and Sachihiro and Jaydan’s fantasy-stereotypical mindset while still being the crux for most of the plot-convenient action solutions in the story; she behaved like a little girl, saying little girl things and thinking in little girl ways, until danger threatened and then her godly powers would activate and pull her friends out of danger.
So, in much the same way that Adelaide is the crux for the story’s plot, she’s also the seed of most of its problems. Her transformation into an older (though not necessarily more mature) woman at the end of the novel may help remedy these issues. It may also give Alexander a few less inhibitions. If you get my meaning. Because I was definitely getting some meanings from him.
I think that most of this novel’s flaws could be remedied by just slowing the whole pace down. Let us, the readers, come to know Alexander, Adelaide, Tannyl, and the rest, as people and not just characters. Given that this is a series, I can only guess that the danger will become steadily more mortal as things progress. Fittingly, as the danger becomes more real, the characters need to feel more real, elsewise there will be little emotional investment in the journey and danger. There’s still so much we don’t know about the characters and their world; to a fantasy adventure, a genre that so heavily relies on both of those aspects, that can be fatal if left unattended.
Similarly, I know that this criticism must be tempered against the reality that this is only the first in a series, meaning there is still time to develop these characters and their world. There is ground to be made up, though, as the characters in The Girl with Red Hair ended up hardly progressing (that is, becoming deeper, more complex, and more human) from where they originally started.
But there’s always still hope! It just needs to be willed and worked into reality.
I’m really trying to keep these a more relevant and consistent thing. One review a month (or, at least, one month’s-worth [so, every 30 days]) seems practical. But every time I set a goal like that for myself (cough cough, Lorequest), I end up shunting it by total accident.
So maybe I’ll just keep things ambiguous and infuriating! Like a summer storm, I come, I go, I make you freak out about accidentally leaving your car windows open!
Not even I know what that last one’s supposed to mean. Which makes it all the scarier.
Good luck, you brave writer folk!