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Book Review: Willing Sacrifice

By (May 2, 2014) No Comment

Willing Sacrifice: The Sentinel Warswilling sacrifice cover

By Shannon K. Butcher

Signet, 2014


One of the drawbacks of novels-in-series is the sense they can instill of complacency – the deadliest failing of a reader and, as Racine pointed out so cuttingly, a sure sign that the author has not earned his wages. Or her wages, in the case of Shannon Butcher, whose new novel, Willing Sacrifice, is the eighth installment in her “Sentinel Wars” series and will in large part only be enjoyable (not to say comprehensible) to readers of the previous seven installments, most especially the last one.

“In large part” because it is theoretically possible to pick up this book cold, read it through, and glean some enjoyment from it. Butcher isn’t afraid of her penchant for melodrama – she rather embraces her super-heated story of lovers who are almost literally star-crossed. These books chronicle the age-old fight of the noble warrior-clan of the Theronai against the Synestryn (who are evil, in case the convenience of their name didn’t tip you off); the Theronai are a quasi-mystical hard-edged brotherhood, and one of their number, Torr, was saved from a devastating crippling in the last outing by the heroism of a human woman named Grace (also in case you were wondering), whose heroism came at a price: in order to save Torr from his injury, she had to take it upon herself, and it nearly killed her. She was taken by a sorceress named Brenya back to her strange homeworld, where Brenya was able to begin a deep-healing process that brought renewal but seemed to wipe out all Grace’s memories of Torr and the Theronai. Torr’s love for Grace still burns as brightly as ever, but thanks to her love for him, she no longer remembers her love for him.

It’s a neat enough set-up, and if Butcher still had any sense that she was singing for her supper, she might have made much more out of it than she does in these pages. Instead, she hardly troubles herself to provide any background information to new readers – probably because she’s either uncertain she’ll have new readers or is indifferent to them. That’s the at-heart complacency these kinds of books can provoke: since you know your audience is already locked in and up to speed, you stop feeling like you need to actually tell your story – you stop policing yourself for lazy or incongruous writing. So when Torr finds himself suddenly transported to Brenya’s ferocious world, we get a quick description followed by a zinger:

The sky was orange. The trees were covered in shiny bluish leaves that looked more like metal than plant matter. One sun burned high in the sky, and below it, smaller and more distant, a second one cast its light low over the ground.

Wherever Torr was, he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

If you’re wondering whether a greater familiarity with the background-setting will make sense of the image of tough-as-nails Torr watching “The Wizard of Oz” (or even knowing what it is), it won’t. The line didn’t have to make sense: it was just a smirk for loyal fans.

As mentioned, Butcher can sometimes effectively channel a kind of naked melodrama:

Anxiety and excitement buzzed along Torr’s veins. The pain of his wounds was still there, but none of that mattered. Grace was alive. Nothing could diminish the relief that gave him. Even if she was weak from risking her life for his, even if she was no longer quite herself, he didn’t care. She was still his Grace, and the side effects of her sacrifice for him could not possibly make him love her less.

But so much of Willing Sacrifice leans all of its weight on previous books that you almost wonder why Butcher would summon even this much energy. In addition to “Sentinel Wars,” she also writes a series called “The Edge” novels – it’s entirely possible that this is an author who’s never written a stand-alone novel in her entire career. If that’s true, it’s high time to start.