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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Clay and Susan Griffith: CROWN & KEY TRILOGY

Authors:  Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith  
Plot Type:  Steampunk FantasyHistorical Urban Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality1; Humor—1   
Publisher and Titles:  Del Rey
          The Shadow Revolution (6/2/2015)
          The Undying Legion (6/30/2015)
          The Conquering Dark (7/28/2015)

This post was revised and updated on 8/2/15 to include a review of The Undying Legion, the second novel in the series. That review appears about half-way through this post, following an overview of the World-Building and a review of book one. At the very end of the post, I have included the publisher's blurb for book 3 (but no review).

     The series is set in an alternate London during the nineteenth century. Although the back-cover blurb sets the time period as Victorian (1837-1901), the authors (in an on-line interview) place it in the late 1820s.

     The cultural and social elements (e.g., clothing, language, class differences) seem to be portrayed realistically, although a fair amount of steampunk gadgetry turns up from time to time. And, that's all, folksno more world-building, none at all!

     I came to this series with great expectations, having enjoyed the Griffith's VAMPIRE EMPIRE TRILOGY immensely. (Click HERE to read my reviews of those books.) That series was set in a complex, fascinating world filled with interesting, multi-dimensional characters and action-packed plots. Here's what I said in my review of the final novel in that series: "All of the leading characters and most of the supporting characters are fully developed, with extensive personal histories and complex personalities. No one is all good or all bad. Even though [some characters] are villains, we understand what made them that way. We also understand why they must be destroyed, but we...don't necessarily feel good about it. In every book, characters must grapple with issues of morality, loyalty, and justice, and they consistently do it in interesting and compelling ways. The Griffiths have created a marvelous world in this trilogy, and I highly recommend it." 

     Unfortunately, based on my reading of the first book in CROWN & KEY, I can't make any of those complimentary comments. In fact, I can't make any complimentary comments at all.

     The publisher prefaces the blurbs for the three CROWN & KEY novels with identical braggadocio: "A thrilling new Victorian-era urban fantasy for fans of Kevin Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, the Showtime series Penny Dreadful, and the Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Robert Downey, Jr." Don't believe a word of that boastful statement. If you are a fan of Hearne's IRON DRUID CHRONICLES, let me warn you right now that this series is in no way comparable to that terrific seriesnot in the world-building, plot quality, character development, or complexity of action. There are a few similarities to Penny Dreadful, but the TV show has much better story lines and infinitely better character development. I haven't followed Downey's Sherlock Holmes films, but I can't imagine that this series is in any way comparable.

                          NOVEL 1:  The Shadow Revolution                          
     They are the realm’s last, best defense against supernatural evil. But they’re going to need a lot more silver.

     As fog descends, obscuring the gas lamps of Victorian London, werewolves prowl the shadows of back alleys. But they have infiltrated the inner circles of upper-crust society as well. Only a handful of specially gifted practitioners are equipped to battle the beasts. Among them are the roguish Simon Archer, who conceals his powers as a spell-casting scribe behind the smooth veneer of a dashing playboy; his layabout mentor, Nick Barker, who prefers a good pub to thrilling heroics; and the self-possessed alchemist Kate Anstruther, who is equally at home in a ballroom as she is on a battlefield.

     After a lycanthrope targets Kate’s vulnerable younger sister, the three join forces with fierce Scottish monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane—but quickly discover they’re dealing with a threat far greater than anything they ever imagined.

     The first novel in a new series generally includes enough world-building details to establish a sense of place; set up the "rules," so to speak, for the mythology; and provide at least the beginnings of the back stories for the primary characters. Unfortunately, the Griffiths assume that the reader knows enough about 19th century London society to understand what's going on and enough about steampunk fantasy to appreciate the gadgetry, so they don't provide any background on either. As for the development of the characters, that is sketchy at bestexcept for Simon Archer and Kate Anstruther. Those two characters at least get back stories, even though they are not by any means complete. The other main characters are flatsometimes stereotypical, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes just plain underdeveloped.

     Simon is a scribea magician who derives his power from written runes and magical words, many of which are tattooed all over his body. He masquerades as a society playboy and solves an occasional supernatural mystery on the side. Simon's mentor is Nick, who has been teaching Simon to use his magical talents, but is prone to going off to drink, thus missing a scene of two here and there. Nick is a magician who can shoot blasts of fire out of his hands. Simon's late father was also a magician, a member of a guild of magicians called the Order of the Oak, of which we learn very little, even though it has a connection with the plot. Oddly, even though Simon and Nick have apparently been traveling together for some years, Nick knows nothing about Simon's father's past until Simon explains it to him towards the beginning of this book. In that scene, several other names are mentioned: Byron Pendragon, Ash, and Gaios, at least one of whom will apparently be turning up in the third book. In this novel, the authors do not provide any details about Nick's back story. 

     Kate is feisty and independent. She is a skilled alchemist who learned her craft from her late father, and she has always worked hard to be as skilled as he was. She and her sister live on a posh estate with a huge staff of servants, including the intrepid Hogarth, who serves a protector for Kate and her sister (and that's all we learn about Hogarth). The final member of the good-guy team is Malcolm, a rough and ready Scotsman who has been hunting down monsters all his life and whose father had an unhappy connection with Simon's father (and that's all we learn about Malcolm).

     The plot is simple: Once Simon and his mentor, Nick, team up with Kate and Malcolm, they go after the werewolves who have targeted Kate's rebellious, TSTL younger sister, Imogene. There is an unvarying pattern to the plot structure: The good guys plan and strategize; then, they are attacked by monsters (sometimes werewolves, sometimes homunculi, sometimes both) and have a pages-long battle filled with spell casting, explosive weapons, slashing swords, spine-tingling howls, gnashing teeth, and bloody claws. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At times, I began to wonder if the Griffiths really meant to parody the worst of the werewolf/steampunk fiction on the market, but a good parody is entertaining in its own right, and this novel is definitely not entertaining. By the time I was halfway through, I was just paging past the repetitive battle scenes trying to find some originality in the plot line (but was unsuccessful).

     And let's not forget the evildoers, all of whom are rotten through and through, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. When asked why he does the grisly things he does, one of the villains actually responds: "Because I can." The one-dimensional, all-bad-all-the-time villains are so mindless and sociopathic that they are completely predictable, and, therefore, exceedingly uninteresting. 

     A major misstep in the world-building (or lack thereof), is the absence of details about the mythology surrounding the werewolves. The werewolves just come howling into the story line with no introduction, no origin story, and no "life rules." For example, none of the following issues are clarifiedmost aren't even addressed: Do these werewolves have a moon connection? Are they always bornor are they former humans who were bitten? At one point, Simon claims that all werewolves are born that way, but later, when Malcolm comes across a den of them, he says, "I could tell many of them were fresh to their condition. Wulvers, they're called." So…which is it? Born or turned or both? Why can one werewolf control the bestial urges when in beast form, while the others cannotor will not? If they live in packs under the control of prime, why do they kowtow to Gretta (other than the fact that she is a scary, bloodthirsty, power-mad beast)? In what part(s) of the world do these werewolves usually live? What, exactly, is the purpose of the wulfsyl, which plays a major part of the plot, but is not fully explained.

     It is hard for me to believe that the same authors who wrote the terrific VAMPIRE EMPIRE TRILOGY have written CROWN & KEY. I am so very, very disappointed.

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Shadow Revolution, click HERE to go to the book's page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon.

                          NOVEL 2:  The Undying Legion                          
     With a flood of dark magic about to engulf Victorian London, can a handful of heroes vanquish a legion of the undead?

     When monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane comes across the gruesome aftermath of a ritual murder in a London church, he enlists the help of magician-scribe Simon Archer and alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther. Studying the macabre scene, they struggle to understand obscure clues in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s heart—as well as bizarre mystical allusions to the romantic poetry of William Blake. One thing is clear: Some very potent black magic is at work.

     But this human sacrifice is only the first in a series of ritualized slayings. Desperate to save lives while there is still time, Simon, Kate, and Malcolm—along with gadget geek Penny Carter and Charlotte, an adolescent werewolf—track down a necromancer who is reanimating the deceased. As the team battles an unrelenting army of undead, a powerful Egyptian mummy, and serpentine demons, the necromancer proves an elusive quarry. And when the true purpose of the ritual is revealed, the gifted allies must confront a destructive force that is positively apocalyptic.

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Undying Legion, click HERE to go to the book's page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

     I am not going to summarize the plot because the publisher's blurb tells you all you need to know. This story is like a really lame Da Vinci Code-type story mashed up with every campy mummy movie you've ever seen. Simon and Kate and their allies discover mutilated bodies in churches, find ambiguous but supposedly important references to William Blake's poetry, uncover a connection to ancient Egyptian deities, and fight a series of meaningless battles with a variety of foes, including a slavering werewolf pack; several different groups of reanimated corpses; some slithering, carnivorous demon-snakes; and several ancient deities who have risen to take back their powers. 

     The plot has two speeds: a slow plod and a frenzied turmoil. The authors use a pattern of repetitive segments in which one part of the group does some investigation and then is immediately forced into a life or death battle with some monstrous enemya battle that the good guy and/or gal always wins. And repeat and repeat, etc. This alternating surveillance-to-scuffle pattern begins early on and continues through until the final pages. I found myself paging through fight scene after fight scene, completely uninterested in who was being thrown into a wall, or tossed around like a rag doll, or jabbed with a left hook, or clawed in the chest, or strangled by the beast of the day. The story line becomes more and more convoluted until it finally ends with a resolution that includes several twists, but by that point I just didn't care any more.

     Don't take my word on it. Here are two sections of William Blake's poem, "Jerusalem," that are key to the plot. See if you make any sense of these lines.

      And the Four Zoas clouded rage, East & West & North & South:
      They change their situations, in the Universal Man.
      Albion groans, he sees the Elements divide before his face,
      And England, who is Brittannia, divided into Jerusalem & Vala:
      And Urizen assumes the East, Luvah assumes the South,
      Is his dark Spectre ravening from his open Sepulcher.

      Her voice pierc'd Albion's clay cold ear, he moved upon the Rock:
      The Breath Divine went forth upon the morning hills, Albion mov'd
      Upon the Rock, he open'd his eyelids in pain; in pain he mov'd
      His stony members, he saw England. Ah! shall the Dead live again?
      The Breath Divine went forth over the morning hills, Albion rose
      In anger: the wrath of God breaking bright, flaming on all sides around
      His awful limbs; into the Heavens he walked, clothed in flames

     On a more personal note, Simon and Kate share their first kiss and then a few more, so that romance is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, Malcolm makes the acquaintance of Eleanor, a magical young woman who will certainly be featured in the final novel. Toward the end of the book, Malcolm takes a good look at Penny Carter, the quirky weapons inventor, so there may be romance coming for the two of them. Simon's mentor, Nick, turns up very briefly in the middle of the book (as grumpy as ever), but is soon left behind. Once again, there is little or no character development for the secondary characters. We do meet Penny's crippled brother, and we do learn more about Simon's parents, but that's about it. My favorite character is Charlotte, who comes to live on Kate's estate and eventually becomes Malcolm's sidekick (with great reluctance on his part). 

     This is definitely not a stand-alone book. It is a transition between the beginnings of the key-related plot that began in book one and the big Gaios showdown in book three. If you try to read this book first, you will have a tough time understanding the frequent references to events that occurred in The Shadow Revolution.

     This series has been a huge disappointment to me so far. The Undying Legion has a stale, I've-read-this-before feeling to it. The authors have pulled together a few clichéd steampunky bits and added the old, familiar ancient-power-escapes trope, but they have failed to fully develop their mythology and their characters. As a result of these problematic issues, I do not plan to read the final novel. (But the publisher's blurb for the third novel appears below.) When I find myself not caring about what happens to the main characters in a series after reading the first two books, I know that it is time to stop reading that series. 

                          NOVEL 3:  The Conquering Dark                          
     The Crown and Key Society face their most terrifying villain yet: Gaios, a deranged demigod with the power to destroy Britain.

     To avenge a centuries-old betrayal, Gaios is hell-bent on summoning the elemental forces of the earth to level London and bury Britain. The Crown and Key Society, a secret league consisting of a magician, an alchemist, and a monster-hunter, is the realm’s only hope—and to stop Gaios, they must gather their full strength and come together as a team, or the world will fall apart.

     But Simon Archer, the Crown and Key’s leader and the last living magician-scribe, has lost his powers. As Gaios searches for the Stone of Scone, which will give him destructive dominion over the land, monster-hunter Malcolm MacFarlane, alchemist extraordinaire Kate Anstruther, gadget geek Penny Carter, and Charlotte the werewolf scramble to reconnect Simon to his magic before the world as they know it is left forever in ruins. 

     To read or listen to an excerpt from The Conquering Dark, click HERE to go to the book's page and click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

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