Yes, too much of a good thing. While this book has an enjoyable story and a well-developed plot, it falls prey to what I call "the second book syndrome." Most of the time, the second book of a trilogy overreaches in explaining its subject matter -- it tries to summarize the entire history of a monarchy, or describe in detail the current political forums, or provide histories of the world's religions. . . . In short, no matter how integral some piece of information may be to the future or current plot, the author delivers too much, cramming our heads with a plethora of information in order to make the story work. From that standpoint, The Crown of Silence is no exception. As the author herself puts it near the beginning of her story, "The middle is always the longest bit."
In the case of the trilogy of which this book is a part, that may very well be true. In the case of this book on its own, however, the middle was just fine. It was the beginning that had me stopping to do my laundry.
The first in our list of "too muches" is too much introduction: about fifty pages worth. While the introduction is certainly an important part of the story, most readers simply won't wait fifty pages for the action to really get going, yet this seems to be what Storm Constantine expects. While the transition of Shan, the main character, from farm boy to magician's apprentice is a fascinating and tragic subject, there is really only so much of interest that can be told before the adventure really begins -- and it isn't even Shan's adventures with which we need to begin! Rather, we must jump to the story of another man, Khaster Leckery.
Once we get to Khaster's tale the story speeds up, whirling swiftly through a medieval-esque fantasy world of politics, sex, and intrigue. And as soon as we return from this to Shan, that tale's pace also picks up, traveling through Shan's training.
Here, though, we run into another "too much": too much magic. I know this may be an odd thing to say about a fantasy novel, but I believe it's true. Constantine delves into the different sources and views of magic, not so much how magic works but how each of her characters approaches magic, spiritually and religiously. She also discusses which methods seem to work best. While this can be fascinating, detailed vision quests and trial after trial at a set of magical lakes start to become tedious.
There is another rather surprising "too much" in this work: too much language. Allow me to explain: Constantine has a beautiful writing style, but at points she seems to deliberately choose the most obscure vocabulary. While I am a fan of sesquipedalian writers, there is a distinction between being articulate and being distracting. There were several moments when I stopped to debate whether or not she had used a word correctly, or to wonder what a word technically meant. She'd be rotten at Scrabble, because she'd never be able to collect enough of the proper letters. . . She also uses far too many metaphors. In one part she had used three separate metaphors in a four line paragraph. I felt like Keanu Reeves: I had to stop and say, "Whoa."
The final "too much" in Constantine's work is one that requires delicate balance, and is closely tied to what a reader wants out of a good story. Neil Gaiman once summed it up in the afterword of one of his graphic novels, saying that an audience wants "if not the same story as it got last time, then at least the same feeling it got from reading the last story." The point is that we readers like things that are familiar to us. It makes us happy to feel that we know something about the world -- but if an author gives us too many similarities between this story and another we know, or this world and another we know, we begin to feel a little cheated.
There are too many resemblances between Constantine's world, other fantasy worlds, and the mythology of the real world. While a certain degree of parallelism between things the author creates and things with which the reader is already familiar is certainly desired, as I already intimated, too much is not a good thing. The elden which Constantine has in her story are clearly a version of fairies and elves of European folktales. The Jessapurians, a culture mentioned in the book, seem to be based on the people of India. There are aspects of the vision quests which remind one of Celtic tales (the wild hunt), and aspects of Greek mythology (I can see Persephone in the woman who follows the Lord of Death, for instance). There are pieces of Japanese stories, pieces of Norse mythology, pieces of Christian mysticism. While borrowing from real world cultures and mythology can be an invaluable way to flesh out a world, Constantine borrows too many recognizable aspects of too many separate cultures for the disparate elements to combine cohesively, believably, or effectively into a whole.
It is possible that all these similarities are intended to tell the reader that Constantine's tale takes place in an alternate history of the real world. Perhaps if I paid more attention, each of the cultures mentioned would correspond to a real world culture: perhaps the overreaching Magravandias empire that is sweeping through the imaginary world is a parallel of the Roman empire at its height. There are certainly enough similarities to suggest this. (They approve of homosexual relationships, have an emperor, etc.) The matter is confusing, however, and not as well presented as it could be.
There is also a nearly ephemeral similarity between the story Constantine weaves and what I can only call a generic sense of fantasy. Though I cannot pinpoint precisely where, much of what she does feels overdone to me. The community of magi living in the forests, the tree and water spirits, the quests her heroes go on; they are all done in an elegant and interesting way, but feel too well known to become really exciting.
The Crown of Silence, is too elegant, too magical, and weaves too skillfully the elements of every good fantasy story. Having said this, I want to explain that even with my limited exposure to Constantine's world, I am interested to know what happens next. Perhaps like so much of modern society, I am in some way attracted to excess. The tragedy is that, unlike the anxious impatience created by a truly gripping tale, I feel I will have no trouble waiting for the experience.
Erin Donahoe currently resides in the Hills of Appalachia with a black bundle of cat dander named Sierra. She has several poems accepted for publication (see her web site) and plans to Dominate the World by 2003. Erin previously reviewed Nightwalker: Midnight Detective for Strange Horizons.
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