Obadai Bashim is walking through one of the city’s parks on his way to the solstice celebration when he hears someone calling him. That voice belongs to a young man, clothes in tatters, who begs for his help. Jules Sterling, a young engineering sage, has been on the run from the Theocracy’s assassin since his master was killed by the ripper who is now after him.
The political instability between the Five Kingdoms and the Divine Theocracy has always stayed far from County Isleshire where tolerance and freedom from religious persecution has been the norm. But now the Theocracy has gotten bold under the complacency of the Five Kingdoms’ rulers and they threaten to overturn the years of acceptance and freedom to destroy all science in the name of their religious doctrine.
Jules’ Engineering Guild is the target of the Theocracy and the death of his master is just the beginning. For Jules is hiding a larger secret, one that he must protect, as well as finish the job that he and his master had been contracted for….repairing a broken airship inn. If Jules can’t make the repairs, the entire airship will crash at the solstice celebrations, killing many.
Obadai has his own secrets, ones that could make him the object of one of the Theocracy’s hunts. So will helping Jules finish his mission. But Obadai’s sense of duty and the attraction he feels towards Jules makes Obadai agree to help. With the ripper on their trail and an airship beginning to founder, Jules and Obadai face a multitude of obstacles before them. But it’s the Solstice and magic is in the air and anything is possible under the stars.
After reading Susan Laine’s Acknowledgement page for this novel and learning that this has been a beloved project of hers for over 20 years, I really wanted to like this story, if for no other reason that to reward her diligence and creativity. But unfortunately, I have had to work hard to get past the narrative which is so dense, so jam packed, as to be impenetrable. You know the author is in trouble when this is the start of the story. Look how quickly the action turns into a morass of descriptions:
A small shape climbed out of the bushes, nothing more than a silhouette. “Please, don’t hurt me.” The tiny voice cracked. It was a masculine voice, but shaky, scared, and on the verge of tears.
“Who are you? Why were you following me?” Obadai asked just as the midnight bells rang in the Abbey’s clock tower, their deep, gloomy sound echoing throughout the fortress town of Dunbruth. Everyone knew that the chartered town’s name was old Scottish Gaelic. The founder of Larkhall—the old bailey and keep—Sir Ector Macaledon, had been of Scottish descent, a rogue who had been granted this faraway county to rule as an Earl. The initial town name had been longer, Dùnan Bruthach Súmaid, which meant “Small Fortress on a Steep Slope of Waves.” The current form had been abbreviated and twisted by time, wrongly, as it happened. It was supposed to mean “A Fort on Surf Mountain” since the hilltop castle stood on the summit of Surf Mountain—but because the word bruthach didn’t abbreviate correctly, the literal translation was “A Fortress on Pressure.” Considering the crazy times, it had begun to make insane sense. Of course, all that business with Sir Ector had happened seven hundred years ago and had no bearing on the events of tonight. The Dunbruth Clocktower chimed for midnight mere moments after the Abbey bells, more melodic and higher in pitch, like a cheerful echo to the prior darker rings.
And that is only the beginning. Each time a small step forward is made toward momentum in the plot, the author inability to restrain herself from giving the readers what is clearly 20 years of thoughts about her universe building steps in. From that moment the plot is gone, smothered under endless details and nonsensical names. It becomes almost impossible to concentrate on the characters because we see so little of them from page to page. The action gets underway, the characters start making their way towards the airship. All good, with some really terrific scenarios and ideas sketched out before us. Then this happens. Again, and again. Here is Obadia trying to explain to Jules how the Snow Maiden Bridge (a bridge they have to cross) got its name. Keep in mind that the killer is on their tracks, the airship is about to fall, and they have just met. See if you can follow it:
“No, I guess not,” Jules agreed slowly, wistfully. Then he studied Obadai with a curious frown. “I thought it was called Stone Maiden Bridge. Yet you call it Snow Maiden Bridge. Every time.”
Obadai chuckled. “Both are correct. It’s a matter of personal preference what to call that huge block of stone on the side of Surf Mountain, from where the lake waters spring and which vaguely resembles a gray-cloaked nun bent over in prayer. Sir Ector brought the myth of the Cailleach here with him from his native Scotland. It has become rooted here, part of the local folklore.” Jules’s eyes widened with bemusement.
“What is a…Kai-luck…?” His voice rose at the end in a question, indicating his doubts about proper enunciation.
“In Scottish mythology, Cailleach is the Crone Goddess and the Queen of Winter.”
“Ah. The Snow Maiden.” Jules looked pleased at having figured it out.
“Exactly.” Obadai was becoming quite fond of the sight of a smiling Jules. “Also known as the Storm Hag, Cailleach is a terrifying natural force. Wise but frightening, a blue-skinned figure wielding a freezing staff and clad in a gray shawl and cloak.”
“Gray… Hmm. Stone Maiden?” Jules seemed pensive and intrigued.
“Kind of. Cailleach reigns during the winter months. Then, during the vernal equinox, she is defeated by the radiance and warmth of St. Aestasia.”
Jules’s eyes shone with glee upon hearing a familiar name. “I know her! She’s the patron saint of the Virtue of Benevolence with Fervor.”
“Yes. A pioneer in charitable works, she had a passion for kindness and doing good. Here, in County Isleshire, as the Sun Maiden, she embodies the victory of summer over winter, a lady of fire, light, and heat. At the equinox, St. Aestasia turns the Cailleach into stone, to be awakened again during the autumnal equinox.”
Jules nodded, smiling. “Ah. Stone Maiden.” He got a faraway look in his dreamy eyes. “So many stories here, so much history and legend. Almost makes me forget the troubles we’re in. At least makes me hopeful of things to come.”
Do they now get underway? No, they do not as pages of more description is to follow which does nothing to build any anticipation over the impending crash or suspense over the killer after them. Long run on sentences in which Laine attempts to further describe the universe she is building quickly impede her story. Instead of letting the information come out more naturally throughout the narrative (in small bits and segments), the rush to get everything she has created comes out as a gusher, washing characterization and plot out of its path. Never has 76 pages felt so long. Plus, this the first book of a series, surely some of the information dump could have been left to succeeding stories.
There are some truly delightful elements here, ones that I expected from the author of Sparks & Drops. Obadia is a type of plant mage (although he has another title which I won’t give away). In his garden can be found Snapdragons. No, not our snapdragons, but plants capable of snapping in two the hand that feeds them the fertilizer, a very funny and engaging idea (at least to this gardener’s mind). And then there is a wow of a fight scene on the floating inn that is marvelous in combining action with other unexpected elements. As I was reading it, I kept wondering why the rest of the book was so enervating. Here were the vivid descriptions, concise and exciting, I had been waiting for. Here the characters exploded into life along with the plot. Too late, however, to save the story.
There is also a case of instant love and hot sex (yes, all in 3 hours of meeting each other, with fights and killers). In fact the whole time frame of the story is three hours. In another story that might have been a larger issue. Not here where so many others took precedent.
Why did the fight scene not save the book? Because the author couldn’t let go, even then. This is almost the end and Obadia introduces Jules to a man who will help them.
Quickly, Obadai expressed his opinion of the nobleman they had just met. “Yes, he can be trusted. Mr. Graham is a scientist himself. A dendrologist only, but still apparently on the Theocracy’s watch list. Residing in a manor house by the village of Sun Rock these days, the House Dikunu has a history of shielding sages and inventors from the clutches of those who oppose factual knowledge, scientific progress, or just freedom of choice. They’ve even waged a war or two for those ideals in the course of the past couple of centuries, and they have loyal soldiers at their beck and call. So yes, I do trust him.”
Jules nodded, lifting his chin firmly. “Then I shall trust him as well.”
Laine should have stopped at “yes, he can be trusted” but of course, she didn’t. I should have stopped when I saw each chapter was labeled thusly and didn’t.
“11:59 p.m., Newsday, 24th of Golden Peak, Year 2659 of Epoch of Pious Virtues”
You the reader now have the choice. If everything you have read above is just the thing that tickles your fancy, then grab it up and settle down for some lengthy reading. If you are like me and found all that verbiage overwhelming, then I would skip it and read Susan Laine’s Sparks & Drops. There be the magic not here in the Lofty Dreams of Earthbound Men.
Cover artist is Paul Richmond who did his typcially wonderful job in conveying elements of the story on the cover.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.