25 January 2010

Storm Glass

Another review I wrote for Interzone:

Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder (MIRA Books, 504pp, £6.99 pb)

Storm Glass is the first volume of a new fantasy trilogy by Maria Snyder. It is set in the same world as an earlier trilogy but some years later, and one of the minor characters from that series now takes centre stage.

Opal Cowan (the only known glass magician in Sitia) has to solve the problem of why the glass orbs used by the stormdancers to trap the energy of storms have started breaking with fatal results. She soon discovers that the orbs have been sabotaged. In the course of this investigation, she becomes involved in two other investigations, one into the smuggling of diamonds into Sitia, the other into the counterfeiting of diamonds. The former investigation proves to be tenuously connected with the people who have been sabotaging the stormdancers’ orbs. As it happens, it is also tenuously connected with a plot to manipulate Opal into releasing one (or more) of the villains from the previous trilogy. Romantic interest is provided by Opal’s relationships with Kade, one of the stormdancers, and Ulrick, a fellow glassmaker (and possibly another glass magician).

This novel will appeal primarily to those readers who like their fantasy action-packed. From the outset Snyder drives the plot forwards at a relentless pace. Not content with action-filled chapters, she heightens tension by habitually splitting scenes across chapter boundaries. (This rapidly becomes irritating, particularly when conversations are split up in this way!)

But if the story is packed with action, the same cannot be said for characterization. Snyder makes matters difficult for herself by writing the entire novel from Opal’s perspective. Of course, this means that it is essential for the reader to sympathize with Opal. Unfortunately she is a self-doubting, self-pitying, self-absorbed, whiny teenager. Since every other character is seen through this unflattering lens, it is hard for the author to make them more than stereotypes. To be fair to Snyder, she does have Opal embark on a process of self-discovery and growing honesty which may bear fruit in later volumes.

Perhaps I could forgive the weak characterization if the world-building were strong enough to compensate. Unfortunately I found the world Snyder has created as unconvincing as most of her characters. There are two nations in her world: Ixia, a former monarchy now run by a military dictatorship, and Sitia, a federation of autonomous clans overseen by a council whose membership is unclear and whose powers are not explained. Magic is an integral part of everyday life in Sitia but, since the revolution, has been forbidden in Ixia. Beyond that there is little to distinguish them, little or no sense of cultural diversity, no indication of ethnic diversity, no variation in language or even in names. Thus Opal can retain her own name but pass for an Ixian simply by donning an Ixian uniform.

Snyder’s societies appear to be pre-industrial and largely agrarian. Animals are used for transport. Her towns appear to be primarily marketplaces (with some concentrations of craftsmen). Weaponry is resolutely pre-modern. And yet she refers vaguely to factories (driven by energy extracted magically from storms) though there is no indication of what they might produce and why such societies might require industrial production of anything.

Individually, points like this seem trivial. But they add up to a level of inattention to world-building that made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief long enough to become properly immersed in the story. However, if you are looking for an action-packed fantasy to while away a few hours and are not too concerned with characterization or the weaving of a convincing alternative world, you need look no further than Storm Glass.

No comments: