Thursday, April 15, 2010

Killer Zombie Army With Horns

The Ninth Avatar
By Todd Newton
374 Pages
Trapdoor Books
February 2010

Images came quickly as she passed through the Beast’s clouded wake. Soldiers fought on a red battlefield. Many died; some surrendered. A man brandished glowing weapons in defiance. Cities burned at the hands of smaller beasts with similar horns. She saw the Beast’s rise to power begin and end in the span of a moment. Then all went black.

(Before we begin, I should first make the disclaimer that the only other work of epic high fantasy I've ever read is The Lord of the Rings [see here and here]. In other words, influential as Tolkien is, I'm still not familiar with the overall genre itself and can't really evaluate this particular book in its proper context as part of a distinctive category of fiction. I approached this review from a general literary perspective and suspect that a regular fantasy reader would have something entirely different to say.)

Todd Newton's The Ninth Avatar opens with two rival city-states, Brong and Rochelle, who have joined together to fight a mysterious new enemy led by the "dark lord" Zion. The battle is lost and the two cities are destroyed. Meanwhile, a young priestess named Starka has been expelled from her order following accusations of incest that arose over her intense grief at her brother's disappearance a year ago. She is suddenly plagued by intense and terrifying visions. At the same time, Wan Du, the sole survivor of Brong, has appealed to his god for a chance at vengeance and been bequeathed a glowing sword. Following the destruction of the magical metropolis Illiadora, Cairos is the only wizard left to carry on its traditions and he too vows revenge. Starka meets a man calling himself DaVille, who is elusive about his past and is clearly an experienced killer. Mayrah and a small band of female warriors are all that is left of Rochelle. And lastly, there is Wadam, also from Starka's order, a charismatic archbishop convinced of his divinely-appointed right to rule.

It is Wan Du who discovers that the mysterious new enemy are known as the "Carrion." As the name implies, the Carrion are basically a massive zombie army (with horns) who, in a stunning twist of irony, add to their ranks by resurrecting the bodies of opponents slain in battle so that fighting them only expands their numbers. (Think of a cross between the Borg from Star Trek and the orcs from LOTR.) Leader Zion believes that he himself will soon be revealed as the Ninth Avatar, the physical incarnation of the Pillar of Darkness. Todd Newton explains the Nine Pillars here.

It sounds like a lot, but the characters and their interweaving stories are actually quite easy to keep track of, even with all the requisite world-building happening alongside the flow of the plot. The Ninth Avatar is a very fast read that literally hits the ground running. From the very first page the reader is engulfed in the clash of arms between the Carrion and the Brong-Rochelle alliance that marks the start of a war that can only get bigger. The arrival of a sudden threat to the entire known world, swarming rapidly across the land, creates a tense feeling of urgency that something needs to be done, and quickly. The only people fully aware of the danger, however, is the small group of Starka, DaVille, Cairos, Wan Du, and Mayrah, and their separate paths mean they can't stay together, while their disparate backgrounds make cooperating difficult. The central conflict, then, is the struggle of five contentious individuals to overcome a sudden destructive onslaught.

Unfortunately, the pace of events also has the narrative getting a head of itself. Several key moments in the plot happen off-page (hey, where'd that apprentice come from?), while two potentially explosive conflicts are resolved in less than a paragraph each. (If you don't mind a couple of major spoilers, highlight the following text: Wadam's seizure of power in Myst-Alsher is treated as a secondary but very real threat to be dealt with by Starka, who has been steadily growing from a frightened young girl to a woman capable of standing up to adversary. Yet Wadam is defeated just by looking into an oracle stone and almost getting visioned to death. Starka comes back and everything's fine and waiting for her. And then there's the Ninth Avatar v. Zion. The climactic one-on-one duel the reader's been gearing for instead consists of two sentences.) It gets to the point where the story just seems to collapse in on itself. "Now how can this be," I said, "that we've got less than thirty pages till the end and this and this and this still have to happen." And then it turned out that some of those few remaining pages were actually the epilogue.

It's understandable that Newton wanted to write something gripping that would sweep the reader along and be hard to put down. And certainly, we don't need every last detail of everything that happens. But given the expansive narrative he was dealing with - multiple storylines and extensive world-building, with good doses of religion and philosophy - The Ninth Avatar is one of those few books that really should have been longer.

The prose and dialogue were another issue. Not bad, but definitely average, with no really memorable passages. Even awkward at times: "You shall know my wrath, for I am Warkardis, the greatest sorcerer in Fort Sondergaarde!" Luckily the story itself, despite its flaws, is an entertaining one with several Crowning Moments of Awesome, such as the battle of the vengeful wizard, the vengeful warrior, and the mysterious killer v. a zombie army v. a dragon v. a gargoyle! It really doesn't get much better than that. The cover also deserves a shout-out:

Now if you write ever write fantasy novel, there's a look you want.

Again, I don't know how The Ninth Avatar compares to other contemporary works of fantasy (I do plan on reading some Terry Brooks so stay tuned for that) so I can't judge it in terms of genre. But I did find it to be a fun read, despite some clumsy writing and the nagging feeling that it could have been something a lot grander. Not a masterpiece but enjoyable all the same.

Bunny of Bunny Review had a very different opinion.

Review Copy

A while back I reviewed David Michie's The Magician of Lhasa for Trapdoor Books. It was a fascinating, informative, and well-written "Buddhist thriller" and I was very fond of it. Alas, it has been banned in China for its less-than-flattering portrayal of China's 1953 occupation of Tibet. But one of the tenets of Buddhism is that situations are neither inherently good or bad; they are only what you make of them. Says Michie: "The Government in China seems to have learned nothing from its past mistakes. One of the main reasons why they invaded Tibet in 1959 was to crush Tibetan Buddhism, but all they succeeded in doing was exporting it to the West." Plus, as anyone with common sense can tell you, banning a book only makes more people want to read it.


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