Books end up on my reading list for all kinds of reasons: references in other books, recommendations from colleagues, friends, and family, reviews in journals and newspapers, mentions by authors I like, even just browsing in a book store. No further research is required for a book to get onto the list, but when I go to find my next book to read, I dig a little deeper before I make a selection. By a little deeper, I mostly mean that I read the book summary/blurb – what would be on the back cover or the inside jacket flap, if the book were physical. Based on that, I will make a decision if the book is something that I want to read, or if I should remove it from the list.
Some books under-promise and over-deliver. Swordspoint, which we reviewed last week, is like that. The summary was enough for me to read it, but I didn’t expect anything remarkable; it proved to be one of the best fantasy books I’ve read this year. Forsaken Kingdom’s cover blurb was, unfortunately, the opposite. While the book wasn’t exactly bad, the main emotion I experienced while reading it was boredom. This coming from the man who recently read Human Dimension and Interior Space from cover to cover, and found it interesting.
If there is a book that demonstrates that there is more to good storytelling than just having a good story to tell, it is this one. Rasmussen came up with a good story with some interesting twists on a classic displaced heir plot, and in concept there were a lot of things about it that I really liked: the lost memory plot, and especially how it appeared from the outside, for instance, or the concept of needing to perform mundane tasks in conjunction with magical ones in order to keep from going insane, or even the royal family dynamics. The ideas were good, but something about their execution fell flat for me.
I think there were two main things that kept me from enjoying the book. First, lack of follow-through. The prologue/first chapter sets up the protagonist’s capture and memory loss, and the second chapter opens with him being unaware that he was ever anyone besides the royal tutor. While we are given a very brief view of what his life was like as the royal tutor, almost immediately we have a disruption from that normal, so soon that we barely have a normal from which to disrupt. This might seem like a good thing for pacing in a book that I’ve already accused of being boring, but because we don’t know enough of what the protagonist’s life was like before, it’s difficult to relate to him and his struggle to come to terms with his odd dreams and slowly remembered identity. To the reader, it’s only been a few pages since he was the sacrificial prince, and so we have little patience for him as the palace tutor.
The memory loss is made out to be a major part of the plot, but some of its most interesting implications are ignored, or hand-waved over. Rasmussen in several places makes reference to the prince’s people believing that he has betrayed them, but nothing much comes of that point, and soon enough they’re all following him around and proclaiming him to be a veritable messianic figure. It’s one thing for his close former friends and associates to be convinced after sufficient evidence – it’s quite another for the entire countryside to change its mind without much effort exerted on the prince’s part. He just takes it as his due.
Which is the other half of how this story stumbled in my mind: the main character was unsympathetic, to the point where I found myself hoping he would lose. This was not the deliberate anti-hero kind of effort, like in Lord Foul’s Bane, where the reader is not supposed to like the protagonist, or at least not be sure if they should like them. Instead, the prince is written as a hero but acts like, well, a shallow shell of an immature character. I found him arrogant, dimwitted, and whiney, to the point that I found myself hoping the antagonist would win. Our prince, despite losing his memory, acted like he was a gift to the world, and took it has his due that everyone should obey him and respect him and think he ought to be their king. He fumbled through the story, winning mostly by luck and because the magic system got stretched by the author to make the plot work, compared to his antagonist, who was highly competent, highly skilled, decisive, with a moral code, and a surprisingly complex and sympathetic story. I think the author may have realized that the antagonist was a little too sympathetic and interesting, because he added some gratuitous cruelty to try to convince us that the conquering king was actually evil.
It would be wrong to say that this book was bad. As I said, it was an interesting story, with some strong elements that could have been very good. In concept, I really liked the idea, and I would be interested in reading another implementation of it, but this particular incarnation was dull and flat. I don’t like giving negative reviews, especially to smaller-name fiction authors with whom I can increasingly relate as I work on developing my own writing, but I also did not enjoy Forsaken Kingdom. Perhaps, at some point, I will look at something else that Rasmussen wrote, but it won’t be in this series.