Talismans of Puissance, by Justin Hinks

talismans-of-puissance-by-justin-hinks coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: 1st Books
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: half star
Book Review by David Hart

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Magic has reappeared in the world, after many generations. A miner called Accurrah finds a magical artifact and becomes a creature of evil. Fortunately good King Traaylon’s blacksmith manages to forge magical weapons, and Traaylon’s party sets off to attack Accurrah and the empire he has acquired. Of course, things don’t go entirely to plan….

That is the setting of the story, a world with magic both White and Black, more or less in balance. I’d have liked a bit more background information, for example about the magic’s origins and limitations, but what’s provided still makes the setting easily the best feature of the book.

Less good is the rather anemic plot, which is finally put out of its misery by an ending that is, in more than one sense, Deus ex Machina. Even in fantasy, magic needs some constraints. Much worse though is the plot execution. Highly unconvincing battles. Miraculous escapes. The ravishing heroine remaining unravished during her captivities. Inconsistency: the journey to Marhtonia takes three days on horseback, but the return by foot only a day or so; the blacksmith says it will take weeks to forge a magic weapon, then produces four in a day; heroes at death’s door, fully fit two pages later without explanation. And especially, the unbelievable behavior of the protagonists. King Traaylon lets his blacksmith choose the members of the travelling party, which is then led by most of them in turn with the exception of the King. They meet opponents and immediately tell them their plans; those opponents instantly change sides to join them, but are nevertheless trusted!

Characterization is virtually absent.

If these were the only problems, I might have read the book with some enjoyment. Unfortunately the last problem is the worst: the writing. It’s not that this is bad; it transcends bad. It’s far and away the worst I’ve ever encountered, and I’ll devote the rest of this review to it. There are three main sorts of cloud plus one, somewhat tarnished, silver lining.

1) Grammatical and Spelling Mistakes There aren’t too many of these, but there shouldn’t be any. Phrases along the lines of “The man with who we’re going with”. The repeated use of the word ‘lied’ to describe posture or location, as in “He lied down on the bed”. The word ‘captives’ instead of ‘captors’. One advantage of getting a book published by the convention route, rather than Print-on-Demand as here, is that an editor would point out this sort of error.

2) Vocabulary The SFWA have produced a list of beginners’ mistakes called the Turkey City Lexicon. Two of these are called Roget’s Disease and the closely related Gingerbread. Hinks has a severe infection, which takes three main forms:

First, the standard Roget error. The author write a sentence, then decide it’s too simple. So he reaches for his thesaurus and replaces a nice, simple word with a longer one; or usually in Hinks’ case with a longer phrase. Examples abound: “Traaylon moved his hands to his head and flung away the spherules of exudation” instead of wiping the sweat from his brow. “He cognizes the enigma” rather than understanding the problem. “. . . the trifling white dwarf of flight” instead of the small white bird. “Crimson fluid gushed forth from his mahogany tresses” means his scalp bled.
Second and more frequent, a Roget variant of Hinks’ own invention. I’ll give some examples first: “Two dozen non-gilded cedar chairs pranced around each [table]”; “Traaylon alleviated himself from his smallclothes . . .”; “Traaylon sidestepped the swipe, cutting the cutthroat down like a lapidarist”; “Screams of rage eructed from their throats”. At first I thought that these were just errors of vocabulary, but there are so many of them that I eventually decided he was again substituting a longer word from a thesaurus. Unfortunately he assumed incorrectly that those lists of alternative words and phrases are all synonymous with the original word, rather than only loosely related. So he uses ‘voyage’ for land travel, ‘unintelligible’ instead of ‘unknown’. Perhaps those chairs were originally ‘set out’, changed to ‘walked’ and then to ‘pranced’; those screams of rage that ended up being belched from their throats, originally were ejected or erupted. Or perhaps not; there were many examples that I couldn’t deconstruct.
Last, straightforward Gingerbread. This is where an author uses unnecessarily-grandiose words. Examples that made me reach for a dictionary were ‘Effulgently’, ‘Cuspidated’, ‘Numinously’ and ‘Acicular’. The use of each of these was entirely accurate, but added nothing to the meaning of the sentence. So “On his way, the Marhtonian infantry stalled him, attacking and fating themselves to a transfixion from the tip of his acicular blade”, a typically ungainly sentence. Is it improved by the revelation that acicular means ‘needle-like’? This sort of thing just annoys the reader.

3) Sentence Content By this I mean both the awkwardness of many of the sentences, and the often unfortunate choice of words. For example “Sightless bells singed her ears, calling everyone to the aid of the castle”. It’s difficult to imagine anyone writing those first three words, far less retaining them on re-reading. Similarly “He applied an astute ear, searching for the appropriate sounds and smells”. Still on an anatomical theme, “Hyslon searched the land before him and locked his eyes on Accurrah. If not for the eye sockets, the stunned ovals of Hyslon would have probably fallen out of his head”. Did he really mean to write “Such insulting comments from their inferior superior infuriated the two”? Or (the hero thinking about the heroine) “He wanted to be with her night and day, from sunrise to sunset”? Or “Dawning of nightfall came in a cumbersome manner”? He seems to have a thing about nightfall; elsewhere is “Bit by bit, pieces of the bright blue sky turned black”. These are particularly gross examples, but there are similar sentences throughout the book, often several per page.

Which brings me to the silver lining. While I’m sure there is no intentional humour in the work, it is actually the funniest serious book I’ve read. Two final examples: “[The horse] worked her legs forward with grace, leaving puffs of stale smoke behind”. Did the horse have a nicotine habit, or a diesel engine? “An inn, climbing three stories, jumped out from the concealment of trees in a clearing”. There are people who enjoy watching films that are so bad they’re hilarious; they would love this writing.

In the days before self-publishing, most authors acquired a drawer full of well-merited rejection slips until they got it right. Now anything can appear in print if the author is willing to pay. By completing a book of some 135,000 words, Hinks has shown that he has the perseverance to become a writer. He is only 20, so there is plenty of time for the improvement that should come with practice. For now though, his book will appeal only to turkey-lovers.

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