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Friday, December 28, 2012

Anton Strout: THE SPELLMASON CHRONICLES

Author:  Anton Strout     
Series:  THE SPELLMASON CHRONICLES    
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy (UF)   
Ratings:  Violence-3-4; Sensuality-1; Humor-3
Publisher and Titles:  Ace
          Alchemystic (9/2012)
          Stonecast (10/2013)  

     This post was revised and updated on 12/12/13 to include a review of Stonecast, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and a review of book 1:

            BOOK 2:  Stonecast            
     As the story opens, Stanis, the gargoyle who protected the Balarus family for centuries, has been missing for six months. At the end of book 1, Stanis sacrificed his freedom in a bargain with his villainous father, Kejetan Ruthenia, who promised not to harm Alexandra (Lexi) Balarus and her family if Stanis would agree to surrender himself to Kejetan's custody and give up some magical secrets. 

     The book is written in the first person voice with chapters alternating between Lexi and Stanis, so be sure that you pay attention to the chapter titles, each of which lets you know which character is speaking. This dual-voice approach means that the plot has two separate story arcs: what is happening to Stanis (mostly horrific torture and pain) and what is going on with Lexi (mostly silly dialogue with her friends, but later a rushed and misguided romantic relationship with a completely untrustworthy, amoral thief).

    Of course, Stanis never had any intention of revealing any information at all, so Dad has had an alchemist torturing Stanisphysically and mentallyall this time, deep in the hold of his decrepit ship. Also contributing to Stanis' torture is Devon, Lexi's mean-spirited and greedy brother, who allowed Kejetan to turn him into a gargoyle based on promises of immortality, power, and wealth. As you can imagine, Kejetan is in a very bad mood after so much time has passed with no results. He wants the secret magical information held by the Belarus family, and he wants it now.

     Meanwhile, Lexi and her Scooby Doo team (i.e., Rory and Marshall) have been working on building up their skills. They know that Kejetan will eventually attack them, and they want to be ready. Lexi has managed to increase her spellmasonry powers to some extent, but not nearly enough to provide any protection from Kejetan and his gargoyle troops.

     The plot centers around Kejetan's attempts to break Stanis' will as the alchemist finally subdues Stanis' true inner voice and forces him to follow Kejetan's orders: to get the mystical spellmason secrets from Lexi at any cost, even if it results in her death. Meanwhile, Lexi is approached by Desmond Locke, her father's sleazy spiritual advisor, who turns out to be involved in a quasi-religious organization called the Libra Concordia. That group collects information on questionable miracles that are generally connected to magic. Locke is quite interested in capturing Lexi's father's "angel" for further study. (That would be Stanis, who rescued her dad from a near drowning when he was a child). When Locke agrees to allow Lexi access to Libra Concordia's library in exchange for information about the angel, he introduces her to Caleb Kennedy, a young and handsome alchemist who agrees to help her, even though he has done some very bad things that should make her quite wary of trusting him.

     As the plot builds to its climactic resolution at sea, Lexi (as in book 1) performs some maneuvers that are highly improbable (like flying around Manhattan using homemade stone wings after just one very short lesson). The characters of Rory and Marshall are so shallow and forced that they are cringe-worthy, while Lexi's insta-romantic relationship with the devious Caleb just serves to emphasize her immaturity and her air-headed lack of insight. 

     Although this book is marginally better plotted than book 1, the characters are still paper-thin, and there is still the extremely improbable fact that the human community seems oddly unaware of the gargoyles in their midst. You'd think that the mayor would call in the National Guard to deal with them as they destroy buildings right and left, but no…it's as if no one even notices the damage. Click HERE to read an excerpt on the Stonecast page at amazon.com. Just click on the book cover (top left) for access to the excerpt.

            WORLD-BUILDING            
     This world is mostly human. In fact as the series opens, the only supernatural creatures that exist in this alternate Manhattan are stone mengargoyles, or grotesques. In the series opener, the gargoyle who is at the center of the story, Stanis (aka Stan, aka Stanislav), perches on the roof of a privately owned building overlooking Gramercy Park. This gargoyle isn't the usual ugly, misshapen waterspout statue, however. Check out the cover arthe's a handsome young man even if he is made of stone.

     The building that houses Stanis is owned by the Belarus (pronounced Bell air' us) family, whose ancestor, Alexander, was a great stonemason and architect who built a real estate empire in Manhattan decades ago. Actually, Alexander was more than a stonemason. He was a Spellmason, a mage with the ability to work magic on stone to the point of transmuting stone into a living thing. The residents of Gramercy Park building are Alexander's descendants: his great-great-granddaughter, Alexandra (Lexi); her parents; and her brother, Devon. Devon is the heir apparent for the real estate business, and Lexi dabbles in the arts, particularly sculpture. 

     The supporting characters include Lexi's two friends: Aurora (Rory) Torres, a dance student who has been Lexi's BFF since they were children, and Marshall, a geeky gamer who lives in a world of Dungeons and Dragons. Marshall has just become Rory's roommate, although he and Rory are not a romantic couple.

     Strout also writes the SIMON CANDEROUS series, which tells the story of a talented psychometrist who has decided to go straight after years of using his magical talents in illegal ways. Click HERE to read my review of that series (which I like a lot better than this one).

            BOOK 1:  Alchemystic            
     As the story opens, Stanis wakes up to find himself looking out over a city that appears very different from the one that he remembers. He has obviously been asleep for many decades, but something has awakened him. 

     Meanwhile, Devon Belarus is killed in a building collapse, and Lexi gets pulled out of her comfortable artsy life and forced into the family business. As she is walking home from work one night, she is mugged by a tattooed man with a knife who grabs her and hisses, "Where is it?...We've been looking so very long." (p. 32) Lexi tries to escape through an alley, but gets stuck at the top of a fence. Just as she begins to think that she is about to die, someone comes to her rescue and her assailant disappears. At this point, she has no idea what happened: Who was her attacker? What did he want? Who rescued her? Where did they both go? As the plot unwinds, she gets the answers to all of those questions.

     A few days later, when Lexi is once again attacked and saved, she finally gets a good look at her rescuer: a seven-foot tall man who is made of stone. Stanis explains that he is a gargoyle whose sole purpose is to protect her family. Over the next few days, Lexi and Stanis hold several conversations during which she learns that Stanis was created by her great-great-grandfather and that Alexander was a magical Spellmason. When Alexander fled from enemies in Europe and came to America, he put a spell of protection on his family that was meant to last for generations. Unfortunately, the spell is weakening, and that has allowed the family's enemies to find them. The weakening of the spell is the catalyst for Stanis' awakening. 

     Soon, Lexi is immersed in a study of books and papers in her ancestor's magical library as she tries to figure out a way to locate four soul stones that she hopes will give Stanis more power so that she can somehow restore strength to the protection spell. As Lexi and her buddies search for the stones, they get into more and more dangerous trouble and eventually run into the villains of the story, who want two things: Alexander's spell book and the death of all remaining members of the Belarus family.

     The premise of the series is fresh and inventive; we don't find many gargoyle heroes in the UF world. Unfortunately, the story-telling and characterization leave a lot to be desired. The author presents his expositional material in the form of an improbable dialogue between Lexi and Rory. In an awkward conversation, they each explain some of their back-stories in a manner that two old friends would never do. So...the book gets off to a bad start. 

     Then, there's the characterization: Lexi, Rory, and Marshall remind me of the wacky gang in the Scooby-Doo cartoons as they set out on unlikely adventures, wield unfamiliar weaponry (like a medieval pole arm) with ease, and easily defeat experienced attackers who out-weigh them by hundreds of pounds. Even the two casts of characters match up: Lexi is the rich, always-in-danger Daphne; Rory is Velma, with her dark-rimmed eyeglasses (although Rory doesn't have quite the brain power that Velma has); and Marshall is Shaggy, the rumpled slacker. I guess Stanis is supposed to be handsome Fred, although that comparison doesn't play out as well as the others. The only one missing is Scooby. Lexi's team even does the idiotic "let's split up" bit during one danger-filled scene, just like the Scooby gang always does, episode after episode. Strout's cardboard characters do one crazy, irresponsible, unbelievable thing after another. For example, in the scene in which Lexi and Stanis first get acquainted (p. 98), she asks him whether he can fly well, and when he says yes, she jumps off the top of a building, wanting the experience of flying and assuming that he will catch her. I don't know about you, but I'm not impressed by a harebrained heroine who would do a stupid thing like that.

     Here's another improbability: Within days of learning about Spellmasonry, Lexi is able to create her own animated stone creature. She has never done anything magical in the twenty years of her pampered life, but she can instantly animate a brick. Although Lexi may have some genetic Spellmason talent, to have it manifest itself instantly, without training or instruction of any kind, goes beyond the limits of even fantasy expectations. In another impossible-to-believe scene, Rory the dancer successfully thwarts two muscular thugs who trap her and Lexi on a ship's gangplank. Rory has absolutely no magical talent, no martial arts skills, and no weapons, but we're supposed to believe that she can throw one man over the side and beat the other one into unconsciousness. Once again, that's too implausible even for UF. Characters who can do these types of things in UF stories almost always have some kind of magical powers. What frosts the cake in the latter scene is that Lexi loudly and repeatedly berates Rory for her beating of their attackersmen who were coming after them with long, sharp knives in their hands and murder in their hearts. There's a time to be soft-hearted, and then there's a time to toughen up and just say "thank you" to your BFF for handling a threat.

     I could go on and on with listing these unbelievable scenes, and I haven't even mentioned the fact that although Stanis is flying around in heavily populated Manhattan (and even appears before a crowd of people, including security guards, inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art after crashing though a window), there is no mention of a mysterious stony, winged creature in newspapers or police reports. Apparently, people see Stanis but then just shrug and go about their business. I know that New Yorkers are blasé and jaded, but please...

     This first book was a disappointment. I expected to be reading a great story because I have enjoyed Strout's SIMON CANDEROUS series, but that didn't happen.

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