Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Thunder Forged: A Bad Books Review

Up until this point I've been holding very steadily to the "one update per week" rule I set out with. However, sometimes a thing happens and I have the option to either write a post about it (and warn all you fine, writerly and readerly sorts out there), or sit at my desk chewing pig iron into nails. I'm opting for the former, as I don't have dental insurance. So, with that said, this is the first example of what might be a recurring theme; a series called Good Books, Bad Books

What's it All About?

Anyone can tell you if a book is good or bad, but that isn't my job. My job is to tell you why the book is good or bad, and to point out why writers reading this should go forth and either do or not do, depending on what's being thrown onto the chopping block. And while I was originally planning to start this off on a sunnier note by examining something that blew me away, sadly I picked up a book that sent me into a barking fit by page 180 or so. So, without further ado, I present the first of our Bad Books...

In Thunder Forged: Book One of the Fall of Llael

For those of you reading this who don't know me personally, I am a huge fan of tabletop role playing games. I find them a great exercise in creativity, and a fun way to strop my own character-creation and storytelling skills. When I came across a book at my local library that was set in the Iron Kingdoms (the strange, half-breed child of vicious high-fantasy and brutal steam-driven sci-fi), I was intrigued.

Yes that's a steampunk mech. Why do you think I read it?
At first everything looked fine. In the middle of a war between Cygnar and Khador, an alchemical formula is discovered that could end the war overnight for one side or the other. When someone gets greedy and puts the formula up to the highest bidder though, it becomes a race to see which of the two countries can snatch the prize first, and possibly win the war in one, fell swoop. The story follows a small irregular unit, a trio of storm knights, and an undercover operative as they all try to play their part in the drama on the international stage of the steampunk fantasy world made famous by the Warmachine game produced by Privateer Press.

And Then it Started Going Wrong

"In Thunder Forged" is set in a pre-created world. That's great for the author, because it means there's a lot less heavy lifting when it comes to world building. In fact, if the author is a fan of the game world, it's entirely possible to crack open the rule books and create characters that not only fit thematically, but which could be played in the world. Everything from the types of weapons available, to the rules of magic, to which county is ruled by whom have all be set up. That's great; it's still your job to engage us with it. Ari Marmell doesn't do this; not for characters, not for countries, and not for the cities in which the story is supposed to be happening.

What Does That Mean?

I mean that there's no soul in these characters. Benwynne Bracewall, the tough-as-nails sergeant, comes across as a blank wall of stereotype. Ditto goes for Corporal Gaust, the gunmage. He's just another life-on-the-edge gunslinger with a bit of sorcery thrown in; nothing ever edges him out of this archetype, or defines him within it in any meaningful way. The cities don't fare any better; readers are treated to visual descriptions, but no smells, feels, etc. The people of one city are described as colorful, and a little overblown, but that's so vague as to be useless. The emotions felt by the characters vary between muted melodrama and barely even mentioned, as if they really are pawns whose players forgot to role play them for a scene or two and just described their actions. It's even frighteningly easy to completely forget this story takes place during the winter.


This can be forgiven in small doses, but by the triple digits it was making me wince. Self-interruption was popularized in the "Twilight" series, and it's pretty obvious when it happens in this book. Bracewall is particularly prone to it, with trains of thought like, "they weren't doing that- not yet at least, thank Morrow- but it was only a matter of time."

What's the Big Deal?

Once or twice, this can be forgiven. However, when it happens on a near constant basis it makes characters seem scatter-brained and stupid. It interrupts the story to throw in completely unnecessary comments that we don't need to know, and which are distracting. It's kind of like the plot train is running over cows, and after a while the spectacle of dead cows becomes more interesting than whatever destination the train is rushing toward. Also, exclamation points belong in dialog. Nowhere else. Ever.

Adequate Action Isn't Enough

This book is, when you get down to the core of it, military fantasy. That's a fun genre, and it's a sandbox I've personally played in (check out my Paizo story The Irregulars, still available for free if you're curious). With fantasies of steam-driven war machines and ensorcelled bullets flying, I pushed nearly to page 200. What I found was plenty of action, and plenty of intrigue, but it was adequate at best, and boring at worst.


The action scenes fell victim to the same oversight as the descriptions. While it's possible to follow what's happening, and you can very easily tell who did what, there's no soul to the combat. I pushed right past entire squads being reduced to red stains while fighting yawns, and didn't even feel a stir in my hair when the lightning lances were deployed. The scenes were adequate, but they failed to rouse my blood even a ripple. That failure, combined with the use of colloquial modern words, the constant dashes of self-interruption, and the flat out telling of a story rather than showing us the events that transpired, made me quit at the bicentennial mark.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be worth the high star ratings I've seen, and I wanted to be able to compare it to some of the books put out by Paizo's "Pathfinder Tales". As it stands though, "In Thunder Forged" is a bland, tasteless bowl of oatmeal. It will distract you on a plane, and fill your imagination with enough calories, but there are some seriously crunchy bits in the bottom, and the whole thing tastes pretty badly burned overall. All in all, as much as I love the Iron Kingdoms, I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone read this book.

As always, thanks for stopping in and staying a spell. Do you want to see more Good Books, Bad Books? If so, leave me a comment or two below and I'll be happy to dig back through my lists and find those who either did it right, or who did it quite wrong. For those who want to keep up with myself as an author, feel free to poke me over on Facebook, or to get a mainline feed follow me on Tumblr. If you're really curious about my own contributions to fiction (and you're wondering what gives me the right to criticize other authors) head over to my Goodreads author page. To support The Literary Mercenary, just spread the word, buy a book, or remember that this blog runs on Google AdSense. We do love our ads 'round these parts.

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