Gideon’s Wall, by Greg Kurzawa

gideons-wall-by-greg-kurzawa coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: two and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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For centuries the empire of Shallai was a superpower, ruling a continent. Suddenly it became an uninhabited desert. Ten years later, an Archaist guild summons up sufficient curiosity to try to find out why. Where did all the sand come from, what made stone crumble to dust, why did rivers run dry? An expedition is sent across the ocean to Shallai, led by an unnamed Archaist, travelling first to the capital of Jericho; then, prompted by dreams, south to Gideon’s Wall. This wall had previously separated the empire from the nomadic Bedu of the desert beyond. An archaeological dig produces many human skeletons, and one of a crocodile-headed, lizard-like creature. Then two strange artifacts are found, and whisper into the Archaist’s dreams….

That is the precis of the first section of the book, which is comfortably the worst. It is narrated by the anonymous Archaist, who seems to be a combination of archaeologist and archivist. Perhaps because he is over 150 years old (with no hint of how or why, and the subject of long life is not mentioned again), he narrates in Victorian-sounding prose, full of metaphors, overfull of adjectives. There is virtually no dialogue in this section of over 30 pages. It drags.

Happily the rest of the book improves. It consists almost entirely of a flash-back to the last years of the empire and follows Del, a soldier unconventionally chosen to be ambassador to the Bedu. The story seemed to imply that choosing him was part of some cunning plan; if so, nothing comes of it. Still, the description of his integration into the nomad society is the best part of the book, mostly because of the convincing and sympathetic characterization of several of the Bedu. In contrast Kurzawa makes Del at first inert and later subject to implausibly-instant mood-swings. The Archaist has no discernible character at all.

Apart from the writing style (those labored metaphors break out from time to time throughout the book, though less prominently than in the first section), the thing I found most irritating about the book was the question of time and place. I like to know whether a story I’m reading is happening on Earth or not, in the distant past or future, on our time-line or elsewhere in the multiverse. I don’t mean it has to be stated in the blurb, but I want to be able to deduce it by the end of the book.

So when/where does this story take place? The capital city of the Shallai is called Jericho, and in the same country are the Golan Heights. Two rulers of Shallai are named Gideon and Goliath. There are throwaway mentions of Saracens and the ancient Egyptians. However this Jericho seems to be on the Eastern coast of a continent, with their enemy, the Japanese-sounding Shadrakan, on the other side of the ocean. (Or perhaps not; there is no map and the descriptions are vague.)

There is an Ashkelon but it is a river, not a city. The military backbone of the empire is provided by fearsome warriors called Seraphim; but they are not quite human, and there are another two non-human sophont races with no explanation for their existence. Fighting takes place with swords and bows, but cannon are also mention and one of the non-human races seems to have gondolas propelled by sails or balloons.

Of course in an infinite multiverse anything is possible (indeed inevitable); but these unexplained combinations left me confused. If this is Earth, some sort of rationale for the origins of magic and the non-humans should have been provided. If a nearby alternate universe, it is conventional (and polite) to hint where the time-lines diverged. And if we are in a completely different part of the multiverse, all those familiar names are positively misleading.

The other thing that potential readers should know about the book is that it is a history. By that I mean that there isn’t a plot as such, certainly no plot twists. From the first few pages we know what happened; the rest of the book simply describes how it happen, without any attempt at explaining why. Some people like this sort of book, preferring it to plot-driven books. I don’t; but I have tried to compensate for that in the star-count.

So the story could have been better, but even as it is it’s not bad. Most of it is readable, and I found the middle section enjoyable. All in all, not bad for a first book.

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