Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Bantam Press (Jul 2006)
“In a world abandoned by its Creator, an ancient race once existed – one with powers mankind cannot imagine. Some believe they were the last of the angels. Others think they were demons. Rol Cortishane was raised in a remote fishing village with no idea of his true place in the world. But in his veins runs the blood of this long-forgotten race and he shares their dangerous destiny.”
This Forsaken Earth is the second in Paul Kearney’s The Sea Beggars series following buccaneer/pirate Rol Cortishane whose past and heritage are a complex mystery of hearsay, mythology and supernatural abilities. Having first encountered Rol in The Mark of Ran, This Forsaken Earth continues to expand the world that its creator has forsaken.
Having discovered the Hidden City, Ganesh Ka home of the Pirates, in The Mark of Ran, Rol is a pirate captain aboard the Revenant, a huge man-of-war, who seeks to protect the Hidden City’s interests from the Bionese ships that roam the Westerease Sea. It is in the midst of such a battle that This Forsaken Earth begins, introducing some familiar characters from the first book along with several important new ones. It is also misleading because the enjoyable sections aboard ship are brief, as the plot leads Rol away from the sea and to the only person who could convince him to do so.
Those familiar with Kearney’s Monarchies of God series will be at home amongst the technical descriptions and in-depth nature of nautical events that begin the novel, but for those who don’t know their mizzen from their bowsprit the style of writing can be off-putting. Due to the technicality and multiple unfamiliar names the narrative, even during battles, is slow and often removes the reader from the heat of the moment, to a mildly interested spectator. This is a pity because it is rare in fantasy to find an author who strikes the right balance between explaining the complex elements involved with sea-faring yet allowing the storyline to move along unhindered by a preoccupation with detail. Kearney isn’t far off the mark but with only a small segment actually taking place at sea it feels unnecessary and overdone. The brevity of the sea-faring sections disappoint because once away from the sea, Rol, and those members of his crew who travel with him to Bionar, seem out of place making the narrative uncertain and at times awkward, in contrast to the tight, compact storyline of the first book.
What is very pleasing and well done within This Forsaken Earth is the slow insertion of fantasy elements into the storyline. No piece of information is given up too easily so as to spoil some of the late revelations and the supernatural element is used with intelligent sparsity, allowing the world to feel as real as possible within the boundaries Kearney has laid out. This less-is-more approach also applies to the cast of characters, whose numbers are kept low despite the size of events taking place around Rol. What this allows for is the continued unravelling of the mysteries of who, or what, Rol is without the hindrance of having to make space for many smaller characters. It is very much Rol’s journey and his progression, while slowed in this second book, is still enjoyable, surprising and realistic. There are no classical heroes or villains in the series, which fits very well with the ambiguous world setting and the concept of it being forsaken. Those characters we do come into contact with on a regular basis are suitably well-rounded, their depth giving them a credence that goes someway to assuaging the poor pacing of the plot. The main crewmembers Elias Creed, Giffon and Peor Gallico are easy to like from the outset and as their journey twists and turns each of them begins to take on very clear separate identities. As with The Mark of Ran, the tone of this second novel is gritty, mysterious and dark. A decaying world filled with myths and legends is an ideal setting that evokes a great many compelling images of piracy and fable, it is however not used often enough and the main storyline proves more of a distraction from the questions we wish Kearney would answer, than an addition to the world.
Unfortunately there are some big questions about the pacing and plotting of the storyline that can’t go unnoticed. Foremost is the uncertainty over Rol’s role in Rowen’s war. Having been led through the war torn land of Bionar by Canker with the promise of great revelations, instead we are left with a limp middle section that founders under it’s lack of decisive action and being under-developed. It feels as if a thread of storyline from this section was unfulfilled or toned down, leaving the reader wondering why the hell he went in the first place and what really was the point. This then is the major qualm I have with the book; it never lives up to its promise or the promises it makes. The section on-board the Revenant and then the main body of the book set in Bionar’s civil war are contrasting, disparate elements that don’t flow smoothly together into one single narrative. Once on land Rol’s journey becomes predictable and disappointing, adding nothing to the growing intrigue and fascination around Rol’s identity. It is only at the end, when the wheels begin to turn once again with greater rapidity, does the excitement build, at which point we are confronted with those three dreaded words ‘to be continued’. In a book short of three hundred and fifty pages in length, as was the first, it is curious that those involved felt it necessary to extend this series in such a way, when there were clearly better ways to use the space.
This Forsaken Earth then is a mixture of enjoyable characters based in an intriguing world that the storyline fails to do justice. It is quite clearly a ‘middle’ book, joining the beginning and ending without answering any questions itself. There is plenty to enjoy but it does not fulfil the promise The Mark of Ran created. Hopefully the third book will have a clearer idea of where it wants to go and what it is willing to reveal.
Owen Jones © 2006
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