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“A Guest Review but Really a Rambling Essay,” by Dyrk Ashton
The Valley of Embers, Steve Kelliher
Some time ago, the Ember King migrated his people from their desert home to a sheltered valley with a lake. The purpose, to escape an encroaching evil. Now the king is gone and evil returning, growing stronger and stronger by the day. Kole, a young Ember with the power to summon flame, and his compatriot, warrior and childhood friend, Linn, must embark on a journey to stop the enemy at its source as well as discover whether their protectors of old still live – and if so, whether they are now friend or foe. With fiery swords, riverfolk who draw strength from stone, dark possessed monsters, powerful bad wizard-gods and healing clairvoyant Faey. (My synopsis, not the author’s)
So, a dashing young ex-MMA fighter decided he’d write a fantasy novel. Riiiight. Yeah, well, you may have to drop your preconceptions. I did, and fast. And not because I’m afraid he’ll kick me in the head.
“Despite Iyana’s help, it had still taken a day and more to reach what they hoped was the final in an unending series of tunnels beneath the peaks. They could just see the yellow rays bouncing off of the black, glass-like surfaces of the cavern walls ahead. The light sent pleasant lances into the backs of Linn’s eyes. Whatever was on the other side would have to wait its turn to disappoint her. For now, she was relieved, if not happy” (emphasis mine).
Who writes like that? Who comes up with those words, in that combination, to say a group of fantasy adventurers are approaching the exit to a cave system they’ve been lost in for days? Steve Kelliher, that’s who. And, in my humble opinion, it’s great. This is no isolated instance, either.
In the majority of books I read and like the writing is competent, even pretty damn good, but few have a style that truly impresses and intrigues me. The Valley of Embers does.
“As the tunnel brightened and the air grew fresher with every stride, Linn thought it funny they had not entirely believed her about Iyana’s visit. To their credit–and for lack of better ideas–they had followed her through sloping pathways that curved downward as often as up, Iyana having mapped the path in Linn’s mind as a series of impressions” (emphasis mine).
I quote that not just because I like the writing, but because it hit me when I read it – that’s what Kelliher does with his writing. Instead of laying out straightforward, easily followed directions as to what to think and feel regarding the characters, surroundings, action and events of the story, he maps it as a series of impressions.
I was particularly intrigued by Kelliher’s approach from the get-go. I found it odd, a little jolting, maybe even, dare I say, difficult. I found myself having to puzzle things out, to wrap my mind around this narrative structure and writing style.
But what do I mean by “difficult,” because that doesn’t sound good, does it? Well in this case it is for me, anyway. Here’s why.
It took awhile, thinking about the prose as I read along, but then it came to me – there are traces of Tolkien here. Yes, Tolkien. And I’m not talking about breadth and depth, but subtleties of wording in the small things. There are passages powerfully reminiscent of how Tolkien writes about, for example, the gates of Mordor, the peaks and dales of Lothlórien, or the mines of Moria. Kelliher does not so much describe in his writing as use words, and combinations of them, to create a vivid sense of his characters and world. Like, I believe, Tolkien does.
But more than his likeness in style to Tolkien, Kelliher has, to me, captured elements of the eccentric but inspired descriptive prowess as well as narrative style of Stephen R. Donaldson’s work in his early Thomas Covenant novels. Before you groan, if you are not a fan of Donaldson, this is no small feat. Whatever you may think of Donaldson, the man can write. I’m not talking about the pages upon pages of lovingly stroking a single landscape, incessant whining, oftentimes frustrating moral ambiguity, or constant pain and suffering that some feel plague Donaldson’s work – but the tight control of word craft and vocabulary, the strange and even unsettling shifts in narrative, the impressionistic feel of location, action, even character traits and impulses. I recognize this place, I feel it. I know this emotion, this motivation, that these events are connected. But who is this again? How did they get here? How did I get here? And why?
At times, it felt like Kelliher wasn’t providing enough connection between events – even in the same character’s perspective – and then I caught on to the idea of dream logic. Thinking back on it after reading, even thinking back on what I’d just read while reading, felt like remembering a dream. Like having to think hard about it, even struggle to recall it upon waking, but it was a really cool dream and you really want to remember it. So you do–but still, it’s the memory of a dream, and that’s always different than a “real” memory. That’s maybe not very illuminating but that’s how it felt, and still feels, to me. Like a dream, it’s weird and wonderful and horrifying and those fantastic impossible elements feel so very real. That’s the only way I can think of to describe it.
I find this idea interesting, too, because, dream is the inherent (though not entirely validated in my opinion) conceit of Lord Foul’s Bane, and then, in Valley, a number of the characters have visions quite often, purposeful or not, which sweep them off to faraway places and times that defy Euclidian/Newtonian/Cartesian coordinates and Hegelian linear temporal logic. And that seeps into the waking narrative to a certain extent. Not as extreme, but it’s there, giving nearly the entire story just a taste of that dreamlike quality.
What is happening makes plenty of sense, at least in a fantasy manner. Don’t let me lead you to think this is so weird you might not be able to follow. It’s how things are happening that sometimes does not make sense in a normal fashion, in the simple and straightforward way we are more used to. This is not to say it’s inept or terribly confusing in the least, just designed less to provide clearly detailed, sharply focused pictures and linear progressions than a feel, with a style that I find terrifically intriguing. Much of that intrigue for me is because it’s different. I like different. Especially when it is done purposefully and well. And Kelliher does. He uses surprising subtlety and restraint, presenting happenings without great detail, lending even more mystery, and power, to the characters and bizarre and terrible events. As if describing a dream, the images evoked in the mind’s eye are salient but vague, sharply focused but obtuse.
Now, I’ve seen bits and pieces of what I’m talking about in other books, but for the most part it is so inconsistent as to appear accidental or even the result of incompetence. I’m convinced there’s a method to Kelliher’s madness, and it works. Can it be frustrating? Yes, at times, but never enough to make me chuck it in the fireplace. In fact, I like a bit of frustration in a book. That’s part of the reason I love Roger Zelazny.
Some of the peculiar or offbeat logic and plotting reminds me of anime – not surprising, considering I’ve recently learned that Kelliher knows quite a bit about anime. I honestly don’t read literary anime, I just watch the films, but I get that feel. Don’t be dismayed if you’re not a fan of anime, it just has some of that same offbeat structure at times, and those spectacular large-scale magical battles and events.
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure and in all fairness to myself and the reader who may feel as I do, here are some critical observations, if not outright criticisms. Some of Valley might be a little too obtuse and could have been made more easily understandable. I’m not entirely sure what a Landkist is, what the exact relationship is between those folks, Embers, and Rockbled, and why the heck the people of the valley who have powers of the Faey are called Faeykin, but some actual Faey are also called Faeykin, and an elder of the valley, who is not Faey, is called Faey Mother. In addition to the oddity or inconsistency of nomenclature, I had a hell of a time putting together the timeline of events leading up to where our story begins. The people leaving the desert, small territorial scuffles that occurred, training of characters by the Faey, a great battle with the Ember King and his Sage ally pitted against the evil Eastern Dark. Just when I thought I had it lined up in my head, another piece of evidence or dialogue would crop up to muddle it all over again.
We learn little about the characters as people/human beings, their real inner thoughts, more mundane daily motivations, needs and desires that make them “human.” They feel rage, exhaustion, fear and pain, mostly. But they are iconic, archetypal, and rounded enough with subtleties to make me care, and very much, for some of them.
There is an almost formal repetitive quality to exchanges of dialogue, words, response, reaction, but this actually sets up a cadence that is almost comforting once you get used to it, and it’s obviously a deliberate if eccentric choice by the author.
The location, the Valley itself, seems to be at once very tiny for an epic fantasy but also quite large (though this could be attributed to the dreamlike quality). The wider world is only alluded to, particularly the desert from which they came. Again, not a criticism, just an observation.
Are there tropes and clichés? Sure, but not too many, and epic fantasy must have some or it wouldn’t be epic fantasy. And Valley is different enough to make this, in my mind, a truly special book regardless of any failings it might have. Valley is stunning and brilliant in its own way, familiar enough in story to be comfortable and exciting, but different and imaginative enough and presented in such a way as to set itself apart, and, in my opinion, above much the fantasy I’ve read in the last few years.
The Valley of Embers is an active read, but I like an active read. I like to puzzle a bit. I enjoy the very act of reading itself, especially when there’s more to the writing than workman-like or merely competent prose. It needs to be different, it needs to be interesting, and yes, even sometimes difficult. Kelliher gave me those things, and I loved it. It’s a rare and wonderful find in this day and age, and I think I’ll go so far as to say this is a rare and wonderful book.
If you want to rip through something easy just for entertainment, you could do it with Valley, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. If you’re anything like me and you like to engage with word and style but still feel the emotional rollercoaster of high fantasy action fueled by depth of imagination, read this book. Really read it. You won’t be disappointed. The writing is truly impressive and intriguing.
In my opinion, The Valley of Embers is a dream-like epic fantasy tale not to be missed, a chilling vision of high fantasy horrors and delights that will have you cheering on the heroes and fearing for their lives. It’s crafted with great ingenuity, skill and care. In my mind, Kelliher’s style is an intriguing combination of Tolkien, Donaldson and Abercrombie, mixed and seasoned for a flavor all its own. I can’t wait to see what Kelliher comes up with next, not just with the story, but as his mastery of word craft continues to mature.
My hat’s off, Mr. Kelliher, with a deep bow and nod. Fighters can write.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dyrk Ashton is a Midwestern boy who spent some time in Hollywood. He teaches film, geeks out on movies and books, and writes about regular folks and their trouble with monsters. His debut novel, the contemporary-urban-fantasy-mythic-fiction novel, Paternus, is available in eBook and print on Amazon, and audiobook on Amazon and Audible.
BUY HERE: Paternus by
ABOUT THE BOOK:
For hundreds of years, the flame-wielding Embers have been the last line of defense against the nightmare creatures from the World Apart, but the attacks are getting worse. Kole Reyna guards Last Lake from the terrors of the night, but he fears for his people’s future.
When Kole is wounded by a demon unlike any they have seen before, the Emberfolk believe it is a sign of an ancient enemy returned, a powerful Sage known as the Eastern Dark.
Kole has never trusted in prophecy, but with his people hanging on the precipice, he reluctantly agrees to lead the Valley’s greatest warriors in a last desperate bid for survival. Together, they will risk everything in search of a former ally long-thought dead, and whether Kole trusts him or not, he may be the only one capable of saving them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steven is a fighter turned writer who resides in the Boston area. A former sports and entertainment writer, his work has been featured on ESPN.com, LA Weekly and other known outlets. He wishes all disputes were still settled with a friendly game of hand-to-hand combat, is a fan of awesome things, and tries to write books he’d want to read. He hopes you like them.
You can find him online at https://stevenkelliher.com/
On Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/steven.kelliher
On Twitter at https://twitter.com/Steven_Kelliher
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