False Covenant by Ari Marmell – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second Widdershins Adventures fantasy novel by Ari Marmell, False Covenant, published by Pyr Books.
“Not as good as the first book but still quite decent, False Covenant is just as delightful in the end.” ~The Founding Fields
When I started reading this novel last month, I’d been waiting to get to it for a good long while. The first book in this series, Thief’s Covenant, had been just plain, good old fun, and I’d enjoyed reading about Adrienne Satti/Widdershins, and I couldn’t wait for more. I expected a lot of things out of this novel that were all a continuation of things that Ari had established in the first novel: Widdershins’ characterisation, the good and healthy dose of humour to Ari’s prose, the hijinks that Widdershins keeps finding herself in, the exploration of her relationship with her “pet” god Olgun, more on the thieves’ god and the inclusion of some of my favourite characters from before, namely Renard, Robin, and Julien.
Thief’s Covenant was defined by its highly upbeat mood, the general feeling that things would get better, no matter how terrible they got. That dark tone is all too prevalent in False Covenant. When the novel starts, the situation for Davillon is rather dire as the Church has taken certain religious and economic decisions against it, following the events of the previous novel. The city is close to a boiling point, with tensions everywhere, and everyone close to just breaking down. In steps rumours of a supernatural harasser on the city streets, a harasser who later turns to murderer, and you have the makings of a rather dark novel. Dark in the sense that bad things just keep happening to good people with no relief in sight.
That’s an aspect that I liked. It contrasts favourably with the first book and shows another facet of the setting and the characters. It brings out the stubborn and unyielding aspect of the characters and it gives a whole another dimension to them. Characters such as Renard, Robin and Julien really came into their own in this novel, which was a great route to take by the author. The narrative this time around was as much about them as it was about Adrienne/Widdershins. The revelations that come out, or the aftermath of revelations already made, was what kept me going, turning the pages.
However, as much as I generally enjoyed the novel, I didn’t like some things about it either. These left me feeling a little lost and disappointed.
One such thing is a stylistic choice made by the author – the use of bracketed sentence fragments in the middle of other sentences or on their own as paragraphs in their own right. It made for some really disjointed reading because I kept tripping up on them. I think that the huge majority of them could have had the brackets removed and they would have worked just as well. As it was, they interrupted the flow of the story and came off as info-dumps of sorts rather than a part proper of the narrative.
Another is that Widdershins barely changed over the course of the novel. Yes, she is seriously confronted by adverse situations and she rises above them to succeed but there was little to no growth to her. The novel’s supporting cast was far more interesting and involved than her. That made me feel really disappointed because I had been seriously impressed with her character in Thief’s Covenant and had said in my review of it that I considered her to be one of the best-written thief characters in fantasy fiction. It all fell a little flat here.
A yet third problem for me was that one of the other hallmarks of Thief’s Covenant, the relationship between the gods and their followers, wasn’t explored in any depth. The relationship between Widdershins and Olgun is an extremely unique one in fantasy fiction, as far as I can tell based on my not-so-wide reading, and I really was hoping for the author to take that issue and run away with it, giving us a lot more world-exploration that this would have necessitated. More history on Olgun, more about the possible future of his worship, and so on.
But that didn’t come to pass, unfortunately. And this also ties into the Shrouded God, the patron of Davillon’s thieves. A lot of anticipation was built around him in the previous novel but none of that came to pass here. There was very little to do with the Shrouded Lord himself, the enigmatic and mysterious leader of the Finders’ Guild whose identity is kept a secret from all but the Shrouded God’s priests and priestesses.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked this novel. I enjoyed reading it. But it just failed to meet my expectations on most levels. I just had too many issues with it.
However, what did work for me was the fourth quarter of the novel, the bit with the climax when everything is coming together. This was the bit where the new characters meshed really well with the old characters. This was where the pacing really picked up and the tension that had been bubbling in the novel so far in the novel really came to its explosive conclusion. I actually got the feeling that the characters, all of them, were in real mortal danger and that things really might go belly up for them. Andy they do!
This last portion of the book was just brilliant. But it is not in time for me to truly enjoy the entire novel experience. And as a fan of Ari’s work, as much as you can someone is a fan based on reading just ONE book but still, that saddened me a little.
As it stands though, I’m not at all put out by this. Everybody hits a rough patch and False Covenant does have a lot going for it in my view. Ari’s humour is still second to none and he injects that humour well into his prose and his dialogue. Plus, the ending of the novel leads me to believe, and hope, that he is going to increase the scope of Widdershins’ world to more than just Davillon. And that really excites me. So I have my fingers crossed for the third novel. Come on Ari!!