The Still, by David Feintuch

the-still-by-david-feintuch coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by Dennis Kriesel

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The Still has action, drama, emotion, and a sense of import to its happenings. Feintuch attempts to provide something unique while still appealing to fans of traditional heroic fantasy, with the obvious end goal of creating a strong book. Does he succeed? Well, sort of.

First, the basics. The Still is the story of a teenage prince named Rodrigo, heir to Caledon. When his ill mother dies, competing political forces begin to overwhelm the young man and his country. His own assumed authority is quickly overtaken by a regent, and Rodrigo sets out on a quest to gain the throne and unite the lands within, dealing with numerous subplots along the way.

Okay, now let’s talk about what works in this book. First, Feintuch does a good job of developing the politics of Caledon. He presents the various rulers and their unique, complex takes on society, from the idealistic to the pragmatic. In addition, the main characters that accompany Rodrigo throughout the book are developed appropriately. Feintuch utilizes a homosexual element in the story that adds an obvious source of complication to the nature of the tale and increases its depth. Equally unique is Feintuch’s magic system and its various requirements. There is a good, strong tension throughout the book, and Feintuch’s own skill at writing makes it a pretty easy read. In all, the makings of a strong tale.

However, there are some problems. Though I love a good political read, there were points where this book became slow, and felt too much like a I’m-walking-to-my-next-political-meeting sort of quest. The same emotional issues, especially regarding Rodrigo, constantly come up, and become repetitive. Also, this book, for being titled after a magical power of Caledon, has hardly any magic in it at all. But the biggest flaw, bar none, is just how annoying Feintuch makes Rodrigo.

Rodrigo is a whining, vain, angst-ridden teenager. Though this isn’t unexpected, Feintuch just makes him too vile for too long. Roughly the first half of the book is Rodrigo whining about having to be a virgin (a requirement of the Still), whining about having to tell the truth (another Still requirement), whining about eating with servants, whining about not being king, and whining about how everyone else expects him to do stuff. This gets so thick that it’s unrealistic; even if a prince was this whiny, how could he even have friends that would stick with him for so long until his attitude changed? It gets old quick, and I imagine many a reader threw this book against another solid object at some point. Feintuch likely does this to make us want Rodrigo to succeed (not just in becoming king, but in overcoming his nature), however, I think this just goes too far, and many readers will give up before reading on. That’s too bad, because the second half of the book is quite good.

Another item I should note is the morality issue. Basically, Feintuch had two choices. One, he could go with a “medieval” morality and require the reader accept it. He takes this tactic with things like constant whippings for punishment, a disregard for the issue of rape, and an honor system built around swearing oaths. Another morality tactic would be to have the reader apply modern morality to the story. Feintuch does this too, shown in an expectation that Rodrigo treat commoners like equals and the application of other democratic concepts. Therein lies the problem. I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. A reader can either apply what is commonly agreed as “medieval” morality, or use modern morality, but a mix-and-match combo just confuses everyone unless it is all adequately explained in the culture (and it was not). Most of the book does not rely on modern morality and the elements that use it feel out-of-place and, because of their nature, preachy.

A final issue of complaint is the end. I don’t mind books setting themselves up for sequels, but when they require it I get annoyed, unless I know ahead of time. The ending pages rush through a bunch of important actions, and end with a prelude to war. A terrible place to stop, this sort of tactic reeks of marketing and is really offensive.

Overall, I have to give this book an average rating. The second half of the book is strong (with some minor exceptions), and warrants something higher, but the first half’s overabundance on a whiny Rodrigo, combined with some other flaws, forces me to drag down the score. Overall, if you can look past Rodrigo’s angst and don’t mind an abrupt, sequel-necessitating ending, then you’ll really enjoy this book.

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