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Book Review: Ice Forged

Ice Forged (The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, Book 1)ice forged

by Gail Z. Martin

Orbit, 2013

The mere cover of Gail Martin’s latest book Ice Forged is enough to promise exotic adventure: we see our hero, Blaine McFadden, clad in furs, standing at the foot of ice-bound mountain crags, as heavy snow falls all around him. 2012 was the hottest year planet Earth has experienced in the 150-so years of human record keeping; just this week, meteorologists in Australia had to add new colors to their weather radar-maps, because the old ones no longer cover the full range of hot temperatures (they peaked out around 110 degrees F., but Australia’s Outback is now routinely reaching 125 +). In New York and Boston, fierce snowfalls like the one on Ice Forged‘s cover are a curious phenomenon of yesteryear, like quad-core processors and Bushes in office. Edgeland, the frigid northern wasteland to which our hero has been sentenced for the crime of killing the man who dishonored his sister, is fast becoming as weird and alien as the planet Pern.

Martin (an old industry hand whose “Chronicles of the Necromancer” series makes for some mighty fine fantasy reading) in this latest offering serves up a world likewise in the grip of cataclysmic change, but it’s not environmental – it’s magical, although young Blaine has plenty of real-world troubles: for his crime, Donderath’s wise King Merrill has sentenced him to the penal colony of Velant, located in the frozen wastes of Edgeland, there to slave at the frigid herring harvest until he rots. “No one comes back from Velant,” a character pronounces. “Out of sight, out of mind” – sure-fire fantasy shorthand for “Blaine will be back.”

There’s a good deal of such shorthand in these pages, and some readers will recognize the habit from Martin’s other books. This is comfortable prose. It’s never melodious, never particularly arresting, and it lays on the detail with just enough tactful repetition to carry the reader along without any trouble:

Even the salt spray in the wind seemed different away from Edgeland. For one thing, it was no longer freezing cold. Could the air of freedom really be so different? he wondered. They would be back in Castle Reach very soon. In the pit of his stomach, Blaine flet a knot that mere seasickness could not explain away. Dread. Anticipation. Grief. Curiosity. The knot of emotions sat like lead in his gut.

This can only be a very measured kind of praise, of course, offered more in acknowledgement of the shortcomings of so many of Martin’s fellow fantasy authors (many of whom could take prose-crafting lessons from their adorable much-Tweeted-about children) than in due reward to Martin herself. Her prose is easy, her characters are largely two-dimensional, and the world she’s built here – Donderath at war with an implacable enemy – feels generically over-familiar. The story is very involving – readers will keep turning the pages – but far too often this feels like a by-product not of Martin’s passion but of her professionalism.

The story’s neat and saving twist is also familiar, but here, at least, more conviction rises to the surface: in this world, magic exists as a kind of background radiation – some ‘mages’ can tap it and manipulate it on a grand scale, but almost everybody has a bit of it swimming through their bodies. And the twist comes early in Ice Forged when that background magic begins to wink on and off (the first scene in King Merrill’s council chamber when everybody feels this is very well done), grow erratic, and finally vanish altogether. This plunges an already-precarious world even further into chaos, and Blaine, returned from Velant (because, after all, who doesn’t?), is right in the middle of it.

Also in the middle of things is Bevin Connor, who’s in the employ of one of King Merrill’s councillors when we meet him and whose very nondescript nature  (“average height and build, unremarkable features, and eyes that couldn’t decide whether they were blue or green”) – belies all the fascinating experiences Martin gives him. Ice Forged is the first book in a projected new series (very much the first book, which is to its detriment – things peter out toward the book’s end, only getting a much-needed plot-goosing in the last few pages), and readers can hope future volumes will shine more of a spotlight on secondary characters like Connor.

A book as full of desperate characters taking desperate chances, so full of sword and knife-work, so full of melodramatic chills, probably hopes for a more urgent assessment than “companionable,” but that’s the most Ice Forged can manage. This shouldn’t discourage potential readers: in both her earlier fantasy-series, Martin needed a bit of room to stretch her legs, and there’s every reason to believe this series will be the same. It’ll likely be splendidly involving … once it, um, warms up.

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