A couple of weeks ago I received a package form Seventh Star Press containing the first two books in the epic fantasy series The Fires in Eden by Stephen Zimmer. The author appears to be quite productive, publishing four rather large novels in the past three years. Zimmer alternates between writing this series and the Rising Dawn Saga, which is more of an urban fantasy. The book came in trade paperback format, including a number of very nice interior illustrations by Mathew Perry. The publisher clearly went for a high quality edition. Zimmer is aiming to write a classic epic fantasy. Although the scope and setting of the novel certainly lives up to that, I do feel the execution is not all it could be. This series is off to a rocky start.
The author introduces us to a group of characters from contemporary Lexington, Kentucky. Each of them is, in their own way, dissatisfied with their life and the world they're living in. One night all of them encounter a mysterious, unnatural fog, that obscures the world around them from their view completely. When the fog lifts, they find themselves in a in a place none of them recognizes. Slowly the truth sinks in. They have left their own world and entered a strange realm where technology has not progressed as far, strange and dangerous creatures roam the land and magic is still very much believed in. It is also a world on the brink of a massive war. A leader known as the Unifier is attempting to unite all peoples under his rule. In this part of the world, only three nations still resist and the Unifier means to deal with them soon. The role of the new arrivals in this conflict remains unclear, but a wizard known as the Wanderer is clearly steering them to a destiny they can only guess at.
The book does not indicate how many parts there will be in this series but, judging form the scope of this first volume, I would not be surprised if Zimmer means to take it beyond a trilogy. He creates a vast world, of which we only scratch the surface in this volume. As the first novel in the series, Crown of Vengeance is supposed to draw the reader in, create the kind of commitment to stay on board for part two and three. As a result, first novels in a series are often more self-contained than the sequels, aiming to be satisfactory read on their own, rather than in the context of a whole series. I think Zimmer hits a snag here. You may have notices I haven't mentioned any characters by name in the synopsis. This is because there are an awful lot of them with a point of view. Zimmer transports eleven people to his new world, eight of whom are point of view characters. On top of that, the book also contains nine point of view characters native to the world. Although some characters get more time in the spotlight than others, it goes at the expense of the depth of most of them, and to a point, also slows down to plot.
Especially early on in the novel, the author is busy transporting everybody to the fantasy setting. They cross over in five separate groups, resulting is a number of descriptions of people who are vaguely dissatisfied with life and their encounter with the mysterious fog. It is not an event that needed to be repeated that many times I think. Zimmer also spends quite a bit of time on their troubles of surviving in this new world without resources and gathering his heroes up in the more manageable number of two groups. These two groups and two focal points for the conflict he will follow for the rest of the novel. By the time these groups have made contact with the natives we're past the halfway point of the novel and only then can we start to properly explore this world.
The Unifier has three enemies left he means to deal with. Zimmer saves one of these groups for a later book and focusses on the two the Unifier means to deal with first. One of these groups, the Five Realms appear to be inspired by the Iroquois league, a loose confederation of people in the north-east of what is now the US and the bordering region of Canada. It's an interesting, somewhat a-typical choice in a novel that uses a lot of common epic fantasy ingredients. Perhaps he found his inspiration locally as the Iroquois do have a presence in his home state of Kentucky. I found his descriptions of the Five Realms culture very interesting. I wonder if they will end up accepting a sixth people over the course of the series.
The second culture Zimmer describes, the Kingdom of Saxany is based on medieval Anglo-Saxon society. He seems to have done quite a bit of research on the military structure of England during that period. I must admit this part of the story frustrated me a bit. It promises a classic big battle at the end, but while the Five Realms do get to experience the opening moves in the conflict, Zimmer holds back here. Saving the seemingly inevitable pitched battle for the next book, he ends Crown of Vengeance at what doesn't strike me as a natural break in the story. It could have made for a good cliffhanger ending but even that is not provided. This part of the story just stops.
There is a risk involved in walking down the well-trodden paths of epic fantasy. On the one hand it provides an author with a number of elements that obviously appeals to many readers. On the other hand, there is the risk of writing a cliché story. Challenging the staples of epic fantasy has given us two of the most exciting bit series in epic fantasy. The Malazan Book of the Fallen, in which Steven Erikson challenges just about every epic fantasy cliché, and A Song of Ice and Fire, in which George R.R. Martin carefully avoids quests and black and white characterization. Zimmer tries to give his own twist to a classic epic fantasy tale and ends up with an unevenly paced and essentially unfinished first novel, full of characters insufficiently developed for me to really care about them. In short, I don't think Crown of Vengeance provides a solid foundation for a multi-volume fantasy series. I hope the author manages to solidify the story a bit in the second volume Dream of Legends. If not, this series is in big trouble.
Title: Crown of Vengeance
Author: Stephen Zimmer
Publisher: Seventh Star Press
First published: 2009