I just finished Paul S. Kemp's Shadowbred last night, which is the first of the Twilight War trilogy, a set of relatively slim books (less than 350 pages each) set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting for Dungeons & Dragons. As anyone who's read my blog for a little while knows, I've got at least some skepticism about reading shared world tie-in fiction, but I'm willing to engage my temerity and give it a go and hope for the best. And according to reports, Paul. S. Kemp was one of the better such writers, so I had reasonably high hopes for this series starting out.
A few minor biases I should probably make clear up front; I don't really like the Forgotten Realms. To me, it's managed to cultivate an image as a squeaky clean, high powered, high fantasy love-a-thon, when my tastes definately range more towards the sword & sorcery and the dark fantasy. I also strongly dislike seeing the "game" behind fiction based on a game. I like to forget that the setting exists for a game and read the book like it's any other fiction. I don't think Kemp did a good job with addressing that issue; I was frequently brought back down by the transparent description of game mechanics that popped up throughout the book.
Despite that, Kemp manages to write an engaging story, and it doesn't feel like the Forgotten Realms I feared it would be. Sure, his characters are extremely high powered. This is the story of gods walking amongst men. Dark gods of thievery, assassination, and whatnot. In fact, in gross simplistic terms, I thought the concept behind the Twilight War and that of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series were very similar. Shady assassin-gods jockeying for power. Cut-throat politics on which hang the destiny of nations and empires. In short, the book had lots of the exact same things that I love; it really explored the potential of the fantasy novel by giving us interesting fantasy, yet realistic and exciting personal drama. And, he did it with interesting and likeable characters. Sure, sure, Erevis Cale, the protagonist of most of the story, was a bit of a stubborn emo kid at times, but he even made that seem OK.
Now, keep in mind, I've only read one of three books here so far (and only two of ten in Erikson's series) so maybe even the overly simplistic comparison I'm making isn't really justified, but at this point in each series, I noticed a lot of superficial similarities, and commonalities in theme. I can recommend Paul S. Kemp's novel; in fact, I recommond it more than Erikson's, which is sadly very difficult to read. And not because it's too dense and deep (I have, after all, enjoyed some Dostoyevsky in the past--although enjoyed is probably way too strong a word to describe my experience with his work); it's difficult to read because it's poorly structured and poorly written. Kemp is a relatively good writer; he keeps up a fast pace, his descriptions are clear and articulate, and his novel structure is one of which I approve that's borrowed from the thriller genre, where opposing personalities each get their point of view time in the spotlight. While this cuts down on reader surprise, it works remarkably well to contribute to reader tension, as the reader knows things that the characters do not, and that knowledge leads to heightened suspense because the readers know that the characters are blundering heedlessly into trouble. While I don't think this book pioneered this type of structure by any means, I tend to relate this type of structure to Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal which went back and forth between the Jackal--an assassin trying to take out a hit on the President of France--and the law enforcement officers who are struggling to catch him before he does. Kemp's books went back and forth between, mostly, Elyris, a spy and confidante of one of the foremost politicians in Sembia, Rivalen, a shadowy devotee of the goddess Shar, who wants to conquer Sembia in a political coup, Magadon, the tiefling "mind mage" who is imprisoned by Rivalen, and Erevis Cale, a similar figure to Rivalen, except more of a good guy, and a devotee of Mask instead of Shar. Although their areas of influence seem to be very similar.
Despite this recommendations, I always have to nitpick, and unfortunately, the fact that the game mechanics showed through numerous times throughout the narrative is not the only complaint I have about Shadowbred (although it is the worst.) Kemp is also not a great dialogue writer. Sometimes his dialogue works; sometimes it sounds like over-earnest Rennaissance Festival devotees or D&D players trying to speak in character in a mode that's completely foreign to them. It's a minor nitpick, but the dialogue could use some more polish.
The other major complaint I have about the book is that it clearly expects readers to be familiar with 1) the setting, and 2) a prior trilogy about Erevis Cale. Lots and lots and lots (and lots) of references are dropped without context, and it's clear that we're meant to get more out of them than I actually did. For most readers, that may well be a good assumption, and the fact that he trimmed the book down a bit by not explaining what those references were supposed to mean would be a good thing to them.
But I expect an independent series to stand alone, and while the cliffhanger ending doesn't bother me much, the constant references to stuff I'm not familiar with kinda did.