Lighthouse Duet by Carol Berg

December 3, 2009 at 11:44 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

A lot of people, including me, complain that fantasy is obsessed with trilogies.  The trouble is, when you go to a somewhat more manageable two-book length, you end up with…what, exactly?  Carol Berg’s Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone are published separately but are very much the same story.  I’ve gone with what the author calls them on their site here, but “Lighthouse Trilogy” would seem a lot less awkward, wouldn’t it?

Typically I wait until a strongly connected series like this is finished before starting so I can read them all at once.  This time was a bit unusual in that I read Flesh and Spirit quite a while ago and didn’t get to Breath and Bone until recently (then I didn’t get around to writing this for at least another month, but that’s another story).  I think the gap there expresses my general feeling about these books: well-disposed but unenthusiastic.

This is probably an audience problem, namely I’m not quite in it.  These books are written well, but just aren’t quite my cup of tea.  I started off really impressed by Flesh and Spirit.  The main character’s cartographic magic was an unusual power and the backstory, involving a prince taken by angels to Heaven, raised to adulthood, and then brought back by the character’s grandfather after using map-magic to go there…that sounded pretty wild, in a good way.  The “current events” of the novel, involving feuding princes and ominous but somewhat distant evil forces, were more ordinary, but fair enough.

Two things sabotaged Flesh and Spirit for me, and I stress “for me” because I think these were unusually personal responses.  First, despite the broad fantasy landscape most of the action centers around a monastery.  A Christian monastery, actually, although the religion has the serial numbers filed off, which unfortunately means a lot of the justifications for what monks do and why they do it were lost as well.  But ultimately there’s nothing wrong with setting a book in a monastery other than I found the world outside to be far more interesting and so always wanted more of the book to be happening out there.

The second problem was the main character, particularly his drug addiction.  Addictions show up enough that if I think hard enough I’m sure I can think of a book I loved with an addicted main character, but generally I really don’t like them in protagonists.  Not for any important reason, really, but more superficial ones.  For one thing they’re frustrating.  For the most part I don’t like having to watch characters do things that I know are going to be disastrous, and having the character know that too but be unable to resist is even worse.  I know, I know, Shakespeare called and wants a word with me.  Well, like I said, it’s a personal preference.  The other and probably more serious problem with an addicted character is that you end up spending a lot of time talking about a storyline that is almost perfectly predictable.  If a main character is addicted it always plays out the same way: struggle, rock bottom, go clean, relapse, struggle, victory.  The only uncertainty is whether the author is trafficking in “gritty” and thus will omit the victory in favor of indefinitely repeating the cycle.

So while I wasn’t a huge fan of Flesh and Spirit, I liked it well enough, and so I eventually read Breath and Bone.  Well, the main character was still an addict.  But virtually no time is spent in the monastery!  Excellent.  Unfortunately, the monastery scenes were swapped for an even more tired setting: magical training scenes.  I can’t say I’ve read a fair amount of monastery fiction, I just wasn’t particularly interested by that one, but I feel like I’ve read enough training scenes to last a lifetime.  Again, the writing is fine: Berg puts a lot of effort into describing the feeling of magic, the broadened horizons, and so on.  I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy it (I mean, there must be a good reason why so many of these scenes get written, right?) but I thought it was boring.

Unfortunately Breath and Bone also revealed new things about the world that made it vastly less interesting to me than the initially presented information.  It used to be that trendy fantasy writers would write something that initially seemed like a Standard Fantasy Setting and then try to subvert it.  These two books seem to have wrapped around so that they started out with something fresh and new and then reverted it back to the Standard Fantasy Setting.  If the whole book isn’t going to be fresh and new I think I prefer the former.

So I guess this amounts to a very long-winded “Your Mileage May Vary”.  If you don’t think you’ll care about the issues I had and you like fantasy than I can definitely recommend them.

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