Title & Author: Shrine of the Desert Mage: The Parsina Saga (Vol. 1), Stephen Goldin
Genre & Publication Date: Fantasy, December 18, 2013
Book Description: “Starting from the fabled holy city of Ravan, two paths diverge that will take their respective travelers to the farthest reaches of Parsina. The black-hearted thief Hakem Rafi comes into possession of the ultimate power of evil, while the storyteller Jafar al-Sharif and his daughter Selima begin a longer involuntary journey that will test the limits of their ingenuity. But first, they must fool the world’s greatest wizard into believing that they, too, are practitioners of the mystic arts.
Thus begins the Parsina Saga, a journey through a world of djinni, flying carpets and high adventure in exotic realms — with the fate of the world at stake.”
First Line: The tale is told of a time when all of Parsina was shaken with war;
My Take: This book was provided by the author for review.
Fantasy books tend toward Eurocentric settings, time periods, and people. I’ve often wondered why authors don’t branch out more. Maybe it’s because that’s what we know and love of the genre. When I received a review request for this novel I was very excited to dive into a Fantasy world that takes place in an Arabian setting. Unfortunately, as far as the story itself, my hopes were disappointed.
Three main issues I noticed:
Whose story is this, anyway?
I kept asking myself that question. Its cast of characters are varied and unique, from a lowly thief, to a crown prince, but there was the sense that the story was being narrated rather than told by the characters themselves. Perpetual head hopping didn’t help matters and that close third person perspective was absent throughout the entire book. The result was that I never connected with any of the characters’ experiences and they all seemed two dimensional.
And one other point: Although the characters were unique, I didn’t much like any of them. For example, the storyteller, Jafar al-Shari, is one of the main protagonists, but he’s not very compelling and my first impression was that, well, he’s kind of a wiener. He tries to make his living as a storyteller with the richer houses of the city but only poets are en vogue. Both he and his daughter are starving, penniless, and living in stables with only the occasional coin for watching over the animals housed there. His daughter points out, rather sensibly, that he should try being a poet. His response? That doing so would be tantamount to prostitution as his talent is storytelling. Seriously guy, get a job! You know what’s more degrading than work you detest? Starvation. Worse, watching your children starve. I would work a deep fryer if it meant food on the table for my kids.
Show vs. Tell
Since the story has a narrated feel to it, the action tends to be “relayed” rather than lived on the page. An example: At one point there was a battle. The best battles scenes are those that keep to a single character’s perspective so we can live it vicariously through him/her. Because an overarching voice is telling the story, what should have been an exciting scene fell into the pit of explanation:
“The quiet of the forest rapidly became a scene of incalculable din. Soldiers yelled their ferocious war cries, servants screamed in terror, and wounded men cried out in pain. Horses neighed, snorted, and whinnied, and the clash of steel rang through the air.”
The book had the strange contrast of having both too much and too little in its chapters. A lot happened in each one…but not a lot of importance. There were many scenes that seemed unnecessary or that began long before anything of interest happened. A bit of writing advice I was given some time ago was to start every scene as late as possible so the reader gets right to the good stuff. Don’t make them wade through the dull.
The Magical: The political systems, history, and religion were detailed and imaginative. Along with the unique setting, the story creates a complex Fantasy world.
The Mundane: Backstory info dumps abounded. Sometimes it appeared in paragraph narration, other times it appeared in dialogue form in which one character tells another character a story that the first character already knows (but has them repeat to be sure they know it properly). Backstory needs to be woven in with the action or it drags everything down.
Summary of Thoughts: There is definitely an interesting thread in this tale and it has an epic feel (or the potential for it) but there are too many craft issues getting in the way (along with serious abuse of the semi colon). The narrator voice needs to be replaced with character voice both to connect the reader to the characters and to keep the tension high. In its current state, the story doesn’t surprise or excite, a combination which flat lines the heartbeat of the book.
Many thanks to author Stephen Goldin for providing a copy of the book to review.
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To learn more about the author and his work, explore his website here