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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book Review: The Tower of Shadows by Drew Bowling

This is for the Debut a Debut contest I discovered here.
Every once in a while you stumble upon a great work of art within the fantasy genre. Take Eragon by Christopher Paolini for example. A young author writes a fantastic epic and well driven story, and succeeds. Not only that, Paolini wrote a sequel which, while not quite as good as Eragon, deserves just as much praise for the development of the various characters.
However, The Tower of Shadows is not one of these so called 'great works'. Rather, it is a terribly written, poorly plotted, and mindlessly pointless piece of fantasy fiction.
At first appearances, and at first glance, you get the idea that this is going to be a story that falls into many cliches, but has the potential to add some new and fascinating twists. The synopsis is gripping enough:(My version) "Long ago a demon called Apollyon broke free from his imprisonment. Two brothers are the only ones that survive in the village, taken to safety by the wizard Dale, and Apollyon was caged again. Wren, wandering into the village, also manages to escape with the help of Dale.
Some years later Cade, grown and possessed with great magical power, seeks vengeance for the horrible deaths of his parents. He hopes to bring Apollyon back and destroy the demon, forever banishing Apollyon from the world. He needs his brothers' blood--Corin--and a mythical dagger. Dale, however, hopes to protect Corin from the evil idealogy of his brother.
And so it begins..."

When you open the book, in the first 50 or 60 pages you start to ask yourself a few questions, realizing that the synopsis has just tricked you into reading something that might pass as a paper weight instead:

Who is the main character?
Honest to God question. In those first pages I mentioned you are introduced not only to the supposed main character (Wren), but to Dale, a wizard, two assassins who's names aren't important, but who play an important role, the bad guy (Cade), his powerful apprentice Damon, the brother Cade needs (Corin) and his friend Dusty and his Uncle or Father, or some such figure, Adriel (Dale's apprentice) and Wren's daughter (who's name escapes me at the moment). And mind you, we're inside all of these peoples' heads throughout those 60 or so pages. I wanted to know who was going to be the focus of the book, because with the POV jumping around all over the place I couldn't tell who was the central character. The synopsis told me it was Cade, the writing made it seem like it was Wren--though it on his daughter and other characters just as much on him.

Why does it take almost 100 pages before the story really starts going?
Now, I know in books of 400, 500, or more pages you wouldn't expect a full flowering of the plot in any way until probably around that 100 or so page mark. What I mean is, the plot is well on its way, it's heading slowly for the climax, and you have an idea of what is going on, even if you don't know all the facts, etc. Tower of Shadows is a 286 page book, this means that the central character should be obvious by page 10 and the plot should be well on its way by page 40 or 50. Rather, the plot doesn't kick off until you're so thoroughly bored with the pointless talk of the characters lives. Yes, we need that information, but not if you are going to waste our time and ignore the fact that there is supposed to be some evil stuff going on and the good guys are supposed to be gearing up for a fight.

Why do dragons of this world (Ellynrie) have four wings?
Now, for most of us fantasy readers or writers, we can dispell disbelief. But we also all know that dragons are enormous creatures of immense power and tend to have some sort of intelligence. We also know them to have two wings. So why four? I can't explain it. Theoretically speaking, a creature as large as a dragon with four wings would be incapable of much more than perhaps eating, sleeping, and reproducing. The brain mass needed to have some sort of sentience (even sentience to know to destroy human habitations on purpose) would be far too large and complex that such creatures would have to be more intelligent, or far more dominant than humans. Bowling never explains this. We're supposed to take it as it is. Unfortunately, I can see the problem with a four winged massive beast.

Alright, so those are some immediate questions. So now I'll address some other issues with the book.
First a positive.
Not all is bad with Tower of Shadows. Despite his constant switching of POV, Bowling's writing style is powerful. He can describe like nobody else. My biggest complaint in his writing was the excessive use of metaphors that really had no context in the story. The thing about metaphors is this: use them, but don't make it confusing. Despite that, if he had written this in the mind of Wren, fine tuned the plot and some other elements, I imagine this would have been a halfway decent novel.

Another issue with this novel that is less positive is the actual plot and action. First, the majority of the good guys get around on pure luck, despite the fact that Wren is supposed to be this amazingly accomplished fighter and for whatever reason Adriel is supposed to be quite powerful. Wren's daughter is, well, a useless and pointless character. She serves no purpose other than to drive Wren further on his quest for fear that that he might lose her. And if she had died I think his convictions would have been doubly strong. Instead, she parades around with Wren doing mostly nothing but crying, feeling bad for the mishaps that happen to her father, and doing insanely stupid things that any supposedly intelligent person wouldn't do: namely, if you can't fight, don't go running after the bad guy...
One of the hugest issues I had with the novel was the battle between Wren, the daughter, and Adriel. Now, Adriel can do some nifty stuff with magic, but not much really, and Wren is supposed to be a great fighter. But this is a dragon. Not a knight or some guy with a big knife. It's a friggen dragon. Does Wren kill it? Of course, he's a good guy. Does he have trouble? Nope. In fact, Bowling makes it seem like the act of killing this amazing beast was far simpler than fighting the assassins that had been trying to kill him for quite some time. So, he has harder times with a couple of humans who were easily killed by throwing knives and the like, but when it comes to a fire-breathing giant serpent, piece of cake.

So, essentially I thought this book was terrible. Bowling apparently began writing this in high school and published it I assume his freshman year of college as he is a sophomore now. Unfortunately for Ballantine, this is not a magical Paolini fluke. Rather, it is an example of why some young writers simply do not have the talent 'yet' to be great writers, or deserving of publication. This is not to say that I am jealous, as I have heard such arguments used before for people who write mean reviews. I applaud writers like Paolini and other debut authors. I'm a fan of J. K. Rowling, and others too. Tower of Shadows, plain and simple, is not a good book.

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  1. Ouch -- but at the same time fair, I think, S. Thanks for joining the Debut a Debut fun. I hope you'll find some other books that are more to your liking!

  2. Thanks for the honest review. I enjoy fantasy literature and, based on the synopsis, I might have picked up this book. Now I know to avoid it.

    Too bad a good editor didn't get their hands on this book - it might have made all the difference.

  3. Thanks for participating in the Debut-a-Debut. It's a worthy endeavor.

    I liked your analysis of why the book didn't work for you. Much more useful than a mere dismissal.

  4. Metaphors!! PAH!!!

    Well written review! Much better than anything I could even hope to write!

  5. Anonymous6:05 PM

    Thanks for the heads up, man.

  6. Great review & appreciated! I enjoy reading, but need to find time to enjoy it more. An honest opinion helps i.e. I was dieing to see the movie "Eragon" but have now been reading it & figure I'll enjoy the whole series and watch the DVD when it comes out in April instead.

    Take care & love your writing :)

  7. Good review. I'm so glad that you've explained precisely why you thought the book was terrible.

    Good luck with your own writing. I'm loving the 'Debut a Debut' contest and all the new blogs I've been discovering because of it.

  8. Since you are into fantasy books and you also mentioned Eragon I wanted to know if this was true. Someone told me that the author of Eragon was a 16 year old. Is that true?

  9. That is true that the author of Eragon was sixteen or so when he started writing it. Obviously, he's no longer sixteen as the book has been out for a while. He's 19 now I think (or 20?). Right around there nonetheless. He's one of the VERY VERY FEW young writers who actually write well. He gets a lot of flack for his use of common fantasy cliches, but most of it is born from jealousy of his success. Lets face it, is there such a thing as an original idea in fantasy anymore? Original ideas are sort of like finding a white moose...nearly impossible.

    Also, a warning--the movie for Eragon was one of the most horrendous book-to-film adaptations to ever grace the big screen. It could very well hold the number one slot on a list of horrible book-based films. It is nothing at all like the book, not even remotely. There is a review in the archives some place, way way back. Probably in December I think. Check it out lol.

  10. Anonymous11:58 AM

    Did we read the same book? The Tower of Shadows was awesome. It was much more original than Eragon, which was fun but plagiarized from Star Wars. It was also better written. I heard about the book from, the Eragon fan site. They reviewed The Tower of Shadows and loved it, so I picked it up.

    What's wrong with multiple POVs? If you can only follow one character, stay away from A Game of Thrones (and most other epic fantasies). There were four main characters in The Tower of Shadows. So what if it was complex? In my opinion that’s a good thing.

  11. First off, Eragon is not plagiarized off of Star Wars. That is a stupid statement since SW is a mishmash of common archetypes, mythological stories, and the like. If you're going to sit there and say it was plagiarized, then you have to say that SW, LOTR, Narnia, etc. are all plagiarized since they all took concepts and ideas from stories and ideas that have existed for hundreds and or thousands of years.
    Second, there is not problem with multiple POV's in general. Eldest by Paolini had 3 POV's in the story. The problem with Tower of Shadows is that there is no central character. In Eldest, Eragon is still the central character (although I found that his brother was more interesting simply because he was a new character for me). Tower of Shadows jumps all over the place. The plot is not steady. It makes turns that lead nowhere, some characters we learn about in their heads when we absolutely do not have to. If Paolini had written inside of the head of Durza on top of Eragon and other characters, it would not have been a good enough book.
    Third, for a 280 something page book, it took far too damn long to get into the story. My attention span for books is limited and if I cannot be entertained quickly in a book that short, then don't expect me to enjoy it.
    Third, the book is just horrible. Bowling could potentially have a good writing career, he just needs a lot more time and a good editor.
    Fourth, there is nothing original about Tower of Shadows, and that's not a reason why I didn't like it. The main archetype has been used a hundred times before, the subplots are common, etc. The only original thing I can think of is the city built around three crashed ships.
    Fifth, multiple POV's doesn't make a book complex. It can have that affect, but Tower of Shadows was far too short for it to become complex. We don't know hardly anything about any of the 4 supposed main characters. We get glimpses of their lifes and past, but what do we really know about them?
    Sixth, I have read many epic fantasies with multiple POV's (Eldest would be a recent example). The difference is that those writers succeeded in creating a decent book, Bowling did not. I have grown a far too sophisticated taste for fantasy literature now to enjoy Tower of Shadows. If I were 13 or 15, I probably would have gobbled this up like I did all the Dragonlance books. Now, having become a writer myself, and reading excessively, I have learned what doesn't work. Tower of Shadows just does not work.
    So, maybe we didn't read the same book. Perhaps you got a different version...

  12. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Eragon and Eldest are completely plagiarized, no doubt about it. Consider the following plot summary, every word of which describes both Paolini’s novels and Star Wars:

    “A boy of foggy origins lives with his uncle in a remote place of a vast empire headed by an evil Emperor and his right hand man, who was once prominent in an ancient order of guardians with mystical powers.

    Through fate or luck, depending on your point of view, this boy comes into the possession of an object vital to a rebellion against the Empire; this object was inadvertently sent to him by a princess in the rebellion, who had attempted to send said object to an old man who once belonged to the same order of guardians as the Emperor’s right-hand man.
    This boy seeks the old man to learn of the ways of this ancient order, but eventually has to return to his uncle’s farm, which, the boy finds, has been destroyed by fire, and his uncle killed. The boy then sets off with the old hermit, who also gives him a sword which belonged to his father. As they travel, they train. The boy meets up with a rogue who is full of surprises, but turns out to be fiercely loyal, for all his proclaimed selfishness. The boy also begins "seeing" a beautiful woman imprisoned and in need of help.

    The boy decides that he needs to rescue her, even though he doesn't know her; further, he thinks of her only as beautiful (Luke's first words are, "Who is she? She's beautiful?" Eragon can't stop thinking about her beauty). Long story short, the old hermit dies to protect the boy, the boy and the rogue help the beautiful damsel escape.

    They then set off to the rebellion to give important information and return the object which the princess had sent the boy. They were followed by the Empire, and prepare for a giant battle that will either save the rebellion or annihilate them.

    The boy proves his worth with heroics during the battle, but his crowning achievement is his destruction of a noun of much power that has the ability to destroy lots of things. The boy is aided in this by one of his friends, who arrives at precisely the right moment.

    The boy is lauded a hero.
    The boy has a hallucination of a powerful master who can teach him more of the ancient order. The boy travels to the powerful master to learn the ways of the ancient order's mystical power. While there, he grows very powerful. While he is away, the Rebellion regroups in a new area.

    Just when the boy is on a roll with his training, and has grown very powerful, he has a vision of his friends in great danger. He decides he must go to help them. His master warns him not to go. The boy promises that he will return. He leaves.

    He finds his friends just in time and is able to distract the enemy so that his friends will remain safe. He finds out that his father was the right-hand man of the Emperor--his father was the one who betrayed the ancient order and helped kill them.

    The boy is shocked and ultimately defeated, but not killed. He finds out that someone dear to him has been taken by evil people, and promises to find this person.”

    This degree of similarity, unfathomable and reprehensible, does not apply to any other epic fantasy. One may, for example, argue that the Sword of Shannara and The Eye of the World are derivative of The Lord of the Rings, with a degree of success. But while it is one thing to be derivative, it is another to blatantly steal someone else’s plot. The Tower of Shadows may not be wildly original, but no one could claim that Bowling’s book suffers from copyright infringement.

    Furthermore, his book is much better written than Eragon. Compare any scene from The Tower of Shadows to a scene in Eragon, where the authors are describing similar situations, characters, ECT, and Bowling wins every time. This is coming from someone who enjoyed Eragon.

    If Paolini had written inside Dura’s head, Eragon would have been a FAR better book. As it stands, Eragon is a simplistic examination of good vs. evil. Bowling’s villains are not caricatures. They have good reasons for their horrible actions. Since when is the goal of a fantasy novel’s main antagonist to destroy an even greater evil? And Bowling juggles the POV’s very well. I can’t think of one scene that didn’t belong in the story or further the plot.

    In the end it seems very few people share your opinion. Check out the dude’s website and look at what the critics have said about The Tower of Shadows. Everyone enjoys it.

    That said, I read one of your excerpts. You write well. Have you tried getting published?

  13. I don't disagree that Bowling is not a good writer. I believe strongly that he could come out and write some rather amazing works. Tower of Shadows never came off as an amazing work. Even in stories that have multiple POV's, there is always one that is somewhat more dominant, but in the case of TOS, there were at least two, arguably three dominant POV's. It just became a juggling game. Most of my dislike for the book was in the beginning because it took far too long and all the action sequences, except the entire section where they were in the city built around ships, felt rushed. Even the dragon scene (it was about a page of actual action I think) was far too rushed. I expected more of a battle with the dragon. They were supposed to be rather frightening creatures.
    Yes, Eragon and Eldest both follow and exceedingly common archetype. That's not the issue here. I expect cliches in fantasy. Look at Harry Potter, it has just about every fantasy cliche imaginable, yet the books have grasped the world. I am not concerned at all with any one book's cliches. If someone took the entire plot of Tolkien, which many have, thrown in some interesting changes and adaptations, then I would likely still be entertained.
    And again, they weren't plagiarized. They simply follow a common archetype, of which George Lucas took from mythological themes. So, by that note, Lucas must have plagiarized his story. He took the archetype and cliches, threw in spaceships and laser swords, and aliens, and called it Star Wars. Paolini took the archetypes, put in dragons, swords, magic, and fantasy races, and came up with Eragon.
    Also, as for his website. No writer in his right mind is going to put poor reviews on their website. Paolini doesn't do it (and it has plenty I'm sure), and most published writers don't. If someone stumbles upon your website, you don't want them seeing "This book sucked", you want them seeing "This was the most amazing book I've ever read". So of course there is going to be praise on his website. I read praise with a grain of salt for that very reason. That's the same reason I don't listen to movie critics.
    Anyway...enough said on this topic. We just see it differently. I think I'm reading Shadowfall by James Clemens next week, perhaps you've read it? I'm sort of alternating between fantasy and scifi, except where my literature class comes in. And if you have any recommendations perhaps of books you find more enthralling than TOS, I would very much like to hear them. I'm finding it very difficult to find fantasy that doesn't have some giant name on it (Robert Jordan, etc.).

    As for my writing, I've sent a few short stories out. No successes yet. I've got a few that I will be polishing up to go out though, and we'll see if they get nabbed by anyone. Selling a fantasy novel is difficult as hell though. Hopefully at the end of this semester I can send some shorts out and, we'll see. I'm also hoping to go to a writing conference come Labor Day Weekend. My brother is coming too I think. We'll see how that goes :S.

  14. Hate to break into the argument here, but we'd like to offer SMD our congratulations for winning a prize in the Debut a Debut contest!

    You win an e-copy of Racy Li's Ninja (and which I hated to give up, but as hostess, I can't very well keep the prizes, now, can I?).

    Please contact me or Erica and we'll set you up with Racy for your prize.

    Thanks for playing in the first-ever Debut a Debut contest, from all of us at West of Mars, Writing Aspirations, and Debut a Debut.

  15. Aha! I won! Awesome!

  16. Anonymous12:18 PM

    Obviously all the people who despise this book have congregated in to one forum because from the reviews I have seen this book is great, especially since it is written by a 19 year old I think? When I read this book I immediately picked up the fact that Wren and Kayla are the central characters because not only do they have more text on their story, most of the points in the story lead back to these two. I will admit that the story took a while to get in to but patience is a virtue and I quite enjoyed this book. I read Eragon and I think they are both equally enjoyable, Eldest being just below these two for me. Anyway, I am not trying to change anyone's mind but this book was very good...

  17. Again, this review is my opinion of the book, nothing more. I'm not the end all be all on this subject. Some no doubt will like this book. I did not. If we're going to go with books with multiple POV's, Shadowfall, of which I am reading right now, is a million times better. By James Clemens. It digs in perfectly, the pace is good, and the various characters are drawn out to the point where I know each of them very well, and there is a very CLEAR central character. TOS did not have a clear central character, it was too short for the plot he was trying to use, etc. Just didn't work for me. Others with less complicated tastes will like TOS, I just didn't.


  18. Anonymous12:01 PM

    No, others with more complicated tastes will like The Tower of Shadows. YA readers with no literary standards will like Eragon, which is simplistic, poorly written, and derivative.

    You want some quality fantasy? Don't read Shadowfall, read A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Now that's a good book!


  19. I'll pick up the book you mentioned. I've heard it mentioned before, and Martin is one of my favorite authors (Sandkings was awesome).

    Again, we run into this same ridiculous argument about fantasy works being derivative. NO FANTASY AS OF TODAY ISN'T DERIVATIVE. Period, it's impossible. Original fantasy is dead. Even when you think it is original, it's been done before. You have to look past that to enjoy the work. Of course Eragon is derivative. It's written for children for christ sake. Are you expecting young adults to grasp works as overwhelming as say LOTR? Stop attacking Eragon to defend your argument. It doesn't work. First off, disliking Eragon does nothing to prove your point. Eragon is successful. It didn't fail, it didn't break apart. The story--yes derivative, blah blah--worked, plain and simple. TOS didn't work in my opinion and yes Shadowfall is a far more complicated and powerful work of fantasy literature than TOS could ever hope to be. James Clemens has shown he has a grasp on fantasy that Bowling has yet to achieve. TOS was choppy; Eragon was not, it flowed well. If it hadn't it likely would have flopped, or never been picked up to begin with.

    If you like TOS, you have less complicated tastes than me. That was not meant to be an insult. If so, then you must be insulting people who read Harlequin Romance novels, as that is considered a 'lesser' literature. Take the comment as you like.

    Regardless, TOS will remain a lesser fantasy novel in my opinion. You can't change that. You can insult me if you like, no problem. I'll continue one with novels like Shadowfall, etc.

  20. Anonymous7:52 PM

    Wasn't trying to insult you. = D Yes, please pick up A Game of Thrones. You won't be sorry.


  21. Felt like an insult, but oh well lol.

    Yes, will be getting that book!

  22. Anonymous10:02 PM

    Picked it up. The endless bad metaphors and stilted dialogue made me want to scream, especially " just the next great quest."

  23. Gawd, I couldn't stand Eragon. Just goes to show how different our tastes can be.

  24. Our tastes aren't all that different SQT. I just like a couple of books you don't. I can at least acknowledge, now, that Paolini isn't the greatest of writers, but he could at least tell a good story. Plus, the kids reading Eragon haven't been exposed to a lot of fantasy, so it might seem new and interesting to them. Eragon is very much marketed to kids.

    But, yeah, sometimes we differ in opinion :P.