***I received a free copy from Penguin's First To Read Program in exchange for an honest review***
I am new to Donaldson’s work, I know of him by reputation only and that others greatly enjoy his fantasy worlds, but form this particular book, I don’t see it. In reading the synopsis and drooling over the cover, I was thrilled to be able to read an early copy of the book as he is such a well-respected author, but those good feelings were wiped out pretty quickly as the first 60% of the book was like pulling teeth to get through. It’s a convoluted “magical” setting with laws and rules that are never well defined, and a world that feels small and simplistic with two warring nations that have been at war so long, the cause is nearly forgotten—though the brief explanation felt like a bad Romeo and Juliet retelling—all the people know is that some slight was caused a millennia ago, so obviously they still fight about it. Even when the main character, Prince Bifalt, has his mind expanded, the world never managed to feel whole, and therefore remained small and petty, populated by a slew of characters that annoyed me literally every step of the way.
Let me start by discussing the lack of world building, as this includes both the physical world and the magical laws that Donaldson populates it with. You never see the world. You never see the warring kingdoms. All the action, everything really, happens outside of the kingdoms who’s fate the reader is supposed to be invested in. All I know, is that outside these kingdoms borders, there is apparently a pretty nasty river, a mountain somewhere, and a deadly desert that is supposedly impassable, but isn’t because everyone else in the world has a way to get through it. Bifalt’s home land is so small, and so far behind everyone else, that it’s sad and laughable, and also feels incredibly unbelievable.
The magic system would be cool if Donaldson had spent more time on that, rather than the prince’s literal journey to achieve his quest. The elemental powers are intriguing, but I never understood much about them other than their range is limited. Unless you happen to be in this legendary library of course, then all bets are off. And outside of a few early instances where we see the Prince’s people and his foes fighting, you don’t see the magic, it’s just implied and meant to cause fear even in its absence.
Unfortunately, the characters all fall under this rather flat use of world building as well, for they too, feel either one-dimensional, or inconsequential. There are so many men who follow Bifalt in the beginning, we are introduced to them, hear their back stories briefly like that will make the reader feel chummy with them, and then they are killed and I am left wondering if I was ever really meant to care about their inclusion from the onset. We only ever get to see the world through Bifalt’s eyes and he is not a fun character to follow. He’s pretty bland, all he has is a frustrating arrogance, ignorance, and stubbornness that make up his entire being. He does not impact any change, things just happen to him that are pretty coincidental when it comes to achieving his ultimate goal. He is no hero. I suppose that’s the point, but the guy is very easy to hate, and not in the “you love to hate him” way. I just flat out did not like anything about him, and I ultimately did not care about him, his quest, or if he succeeded.
In fact, every character in this book is pretty awful in that none are likable, which may be the point as this is the first in the series and the Prince will need to seek revenge or justice or vengeance (or something) later on. But because I liked no one, I don’t care to make myself suffer through another cast of loathsome, arrogant pricks just to find out what the ultimate fate will be of these nations I never got to see.
The book felt long and cumbersome, focusing too much on a painfully arduous journey with men I had no vested interest in seeing succeed because Donaldson made them so flawed as to be unlikable, and dare I say, irredeemable, while the action happens around them, rather than this cast of characters actually doing anything to make their journey a success. The book made me angry because it was so unsatisfying from a character development and world building standpoint that I will not be continuing with the rest of the series. Donaldson does have a gift for words, so this won’t be a one star for me despite my many other issues, so a low 2 stars it is.