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The Wizard Hunters
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2003

Format: Book
By:   Martha Wells
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   May 2003
Review Date:   June 11, 2003
Audience Rating:   PG
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)
Ixion alive had been bad enough. Ixion, dead, headless and really, really annoyed was unimaginably worse. --Ilias realizes he's about to have a very, very bad day.

I have to be honest here: I'm a relative newcomer to Martha Wells' work. It was only in the last year or so that I read "Death of the Necromancer" for the first time, but I was hooked almost immediately. The alternate-world-Paris-by-gaslight setting where magical spells and devices are just as common as revolvers and carriages combined with a cast of appealingly roguish characters to make for an endlessly entertaining tale. It was certainly a lot more original, atmospheric, and interesting than the latest crop of Robert Jordan-esque dross being pushed as "fantasy" these days. All of this may explain why I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed with Wells' latest book, "The Wizard Hunters". Although it's not really a direct sequel to "Necromancer", it is set in the same world (the faux-French land of Ile-Rien) and has some of the same characters. But "Wizard Hunters" suffers from a distressing number of flaws that are surprising coming from the same author that wrote the remarkable "Necromancer".

What sort of irks me even more is the fact that "Wizard Hunters" isn't really a bad book, despite its flaws. Its story is actually really damn good, with world-hopping airship-riding imperialistic sorcerers called the Gardier invading Ile-Rien, and Tremaine Valiarde (daughter of "Necromancer"'s Nicholas Valiarde) and her friends having to forge an alliance with the magic-fearing inhabitants of a previously-conquered (and heretofore unknown) world against the invaders. The black-suited, opaque-helmeted, and technology-using Gardier reminded me (in a GOOD way) of the Disruptors from Bryan Talbot's comic "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright", and are effectively alien and creepy. Hell, the entire concept of "World War I with mages tossed into the mix" is just nifty enough to make this book worth reading all by itself. Toss in a clever and imaginative use of technology mixed with magic, like a semi-sentient clockwork sphere with the ability to learn and cast spells, and you have a pretty good recipe for a damn good book. At the very least, it all makes "Wizard Hunters" stand out from the Tolkien-clones clogging the fantasy section at your local Barnes and Noble, which is a good thing all by itself.

But even these really good bits can't overcome the flaws I found in "Wizard Hunters". The first problem is the characterization. Or, rather, it's the odd LACK of it (and the frustrating vagueness in what we DO get). "Necromancer" had brilliantly portrayed and utterly memorable characters like the rakish scoundrel Nicholas Valiarde, Madeline the ambitious actress who finds herself drawn into Nicholas' double life, and the police inspector who is chasing them both (and who reminds me in an odd way of Claude Raines' character in "Casablanca"). In "Wizard Hunters", though, we only get a good handle on three characters: the brothers Giliead and Ilias, and Tremaine herself. Well, two characters, really, since Giliead and Ilias so indistinguishable from each other they may as well have been a single character. Worse, they're all portrayed so vaguely that I never really felt I knew ANY of them. Tremaine herself never really seems to have any motivation for what she's doing beyond a dim sort of death wish and a just plain orneriness inherited from her father, and since she's the main character driving the plot along, that's not a good thing. The rest of the characters fare even worse; my favorite character in the whole book, the bookish and mousy Florian (I have a thing for smart quiet girls, okay?) is little more than a name attached to a sounding board for Tremaine's plot-oriented musings. Where did she come from? What made her join Ile-Rien's sorcerous version of the Manhattan Project? How does she really feel about the invasion of her home, or being suddenly thrown into an entirely different world where scary men in black leather are chasing her? Your guess is as good as mine.

The second problem is the repetitive nature of the plot itself. The basic setup is good, with Tremaine getting drafted to follow in her father's footsteps as part of a project to defeat the magic-technology-using Gardier and ending up getting sucked into an entirely DIFFERENT world (which, as she soon discovers to her distress, is also being attacked by the Gardier). But from that promising beginning, things rapidly degenerate into a seemingly interminable cycle of Our Heroes getting captured and imprisoned by the Gardier, managing to escape, having to go back into the Gardier base to rescue captured friends, and then getting RE-captured and escaping all over again. Repeatedly! Only a trip back to Ile-Rien by Tremaine and company two-thirds of the way through manages to break the cycle, and to be fair the segment of everyone getting caught up in the desperate politics of a nation on the verge of defeat and having to sneak back to the other world is very tense and gripping. But as soon as they return to that other world, it's back to getting captured and escaping again!

So why am I not giving this book a lower rating, if it has all those problems? Well, as stated above, the concept is more than interesting enough by itself to grab and hold your attention, the worldbuilding is clever and unique (and unparalleled in fantasy novels today), and this book does have a lot of really good, page-turning moments (despite what I said above). It all boils down to the fact that even an off-her-game Martha Wells is better than pretty much any of her contemporaries. The other reason I'm not being as harsh on "Wizard Hunters" is that it's not a stand-alone story. This is actually the first installment in a trilogy. While this could potentially turn out to be a bad thing (the repetitive plot in this book implies that it could very well be a regular novel stuffed with enough padding to stretch it out to trilogy length when it should really be a single novel, and that does not bode well for the two future volumes), I'm taking a more optimistic view. There's plenty of opportunity in the coming books to flesh out the characters (which I hope includes more "screen time" for Florian) and to ramp up the plot a bit. And given some of the interesting setup in this volume, I'm eagerly anticipating some damn good payoff in the second and third volumes.

The final verdict? "Wizard Hunters" is not nearly as good as the brilliant "Death of the Necromancer", but its promise outweighs its flaws. After reading "Necromancer", I know what Martha Wells is capable of, and I'm willing to stick with the series and read the entire trilogy before passing judgement, because I think she'll be able to pull this off. The rest of you, though, may want to wait for reviews of the whole shebang before running out and picking up this first book in the series.

Anime Editor Kevin Pezzano doesn't have any sorcerous powers, but he once saw a Washington Wizards basketball game on TV.

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