Reviews that point out a book’s flaws are painful for authors to read. But, wow, I certainly learn a lot from my readers!
In this analytical review of Merchant of Alyss, Emmanuel Boston says, “My goal here is to help you understand in which ways you will be influenced by this book (in addition to offering a few suggestions at a literary level).”
This review was first published on Emmanuel Boston’s blog, Preparing for Eternity. Reprinted with permission.
Merchant of Alyss is the second in Thomas Locke’s “Legends of the Realm” series, and the book picks up right where the first one left off… in fact, it picks up almost too quickly expecting you to remember the names and relationships of half a dozen characters in the first several pages.
Perhaps that’s my fault, but having read the first one a year previous, I would like some overlap reminding me of past events and persons. Nonetheless, the book begins with a couple interesting scenes that ‘hook’ and then progresses into a plot structure best described as a ‘journey’ motif.
The cohort of primary characters (which features a slight upgrade in diverse characterization from the first book) journeys from one place to another, and another—experiencing new locations and persons everywhere they go.
The Characters’ Motivation
Evil is on the rise again, and a mysterious dream spurs Hyam into action. In fact, one of the major themes revealed through these pages is “Purpose” or “Motivation.” They do something because they must.
The impetus shifts in several key moments, but the motivation always boils down to responsibility: I do this because I must do this, and I must do this because I ought to do this. In painting this theme throughout Merchant becomes an interesting narrative of ‘doing’ even if sometimes I don’t understand why I’m ‘doing’, how I’m doing, or even what I’m doing!
Sometimes this works; it provides an interesting compulsion for the characters to do. But other times it sets up the narrative to show its gears—moments when it becomes clear this event happened simply to move the story along, or when there’s a logic gap in the lore (and I’m left wondering with the characters who don’t see the obvious…because it’s not there).
And other times it forces the characters to discover certain innate abilities far too easily. This character suddenly finds he can understand and speak a language after hearing it 6 times. That character suddenly discovers they have mage ability to rival the masters of a school and thwart a hag who’s spent decades in practice. And that one is suddenly thrust into rulership when never would an earthly kingdom have been so hasty. All because the plot and the timeline demand this character be so capable.
I think the second primary theme expounded and woven throughout the book is the ’need for newness’ in pursuit of future hope. Time and again the characters proclaim, “Wonder upon wonder,” or “The legends come alive” or “A thousand years of decrees and more have been broken,” and all of them serve to point us to the fact that the times are changing.
A new time requires new rules; the traditions were good for the time that is now passed, but they aren’t sufficient to guide us in the new days. This too is an uncommon theme which I found refreshing in the narrative.
Unlike the first theme, however, this theme is consistent throughout and doesn’t create plot holes or logic gaps. The world is in tension… the old still exists and to a certain extent binds the world and characters to it, but there is a newness that supersedes the old—in what ways it can. And it sets the stage for a momentous occasion that will color “the Realm” for all time to come.
Other themes play lesser roles, but nonetheless add color to the characters and actions. Themes of temptation, true knowledge of others, love, sacrifice, unification; each affords memorable, surprising scenes and are quick to illuminate similar scenes in my own life. Each serves to engrain the readers with the book’s philosophy of life and the world:
Selfless love for others exceeds all trials and paves new avenues of hope for a better life.
And the broader philosophy of the whole series:
Evil threatens to overtake life and good, but through the bonds of love, friendship, and hope, evil is vanquished.
Both are much needed in our culture. And I think the influence this book will have upon readers of fantasy is “not every temptation is worth the cost; selfless sacrifice achieves more good than selfish indulgence” even while every hopeless romantic is taught “not every desire receives its own happy ending”—truths well worth my time and consideration
A few final thoughts before I offer my commendation.
- It’s often hard to track the physical surroundings. Now, I’m a fan of Tolkien’s pages on trees, so I know I’m partly biased, and yet I found myself unable to imagine where the characters were and what things looked like. Oftentimes there would be a quick 1-2 sentence description and the dialogue would move on… then it would refer to some physical aspect I never even realized was there. This was particularly troublesome in battle scenes when something would interact with the landscape and I had to go back three pages to reread the brief sentence describing the area.
- At the risk of sounding contradictory, I really enjoyed the portion of the book that took place in the desert. I often find desert travel skimmed or avoided completely, and found Locke’s description about desert navigation fantastic! And yet… I still couldn’t quite imagine the whole surrounding area, or the physical trauma the characters experienced.
- Too often the characters seemed to know all the same information. Page after page characters would finish one another’s sentences. There was hardly any learning from character-character interaction. Everybody already knew it all (the exception being when Hyam would connect the dots and I was left with the characters still ‘not getting it’). Give us a good monologue or two, or five! In fact, there was a distinct lack of long paragraphs, long thoughts started and carried to conclusion, no soliloquys. And again, I recognize my bias: I enjoy Shakespeare. And characters can be left in mystery, uncertainty, and ignorance—it is no flaw or sin.
Comparison to Emissary
So, how does this compare to the first? Pretty similar in plot and style, though better in characterization; fresh and exciting in themes; lacking in dialogue; disjointed at times, and yet the ‘big picture’ fits surprisingly well with the mosaics.
Most of the book feels like it’s setting us up for something bigger, and so in the way of many sequels: it’s a slight dip in anticipation of something pretty remarkable.
I give it 3.5/5 stars, but I round up (particularly because how credible the temptation element was, and powerful the scenes of self-revelation).
I recommend this book to readers of high fantasy, with an emphasis toward the 15-21 age range.
Despite its flaws, this book helps me evaluate decisions I make in my own life; relationships I have, and what they are built upon. And I with Hyam and the others look forward with hope beyond the evil, where every foe is vanquished and life restored.