Iron Tower Omnibus, by Dennis L. McKiernan

iron-tower-omnibus-by-dennis-l-mckiernan coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: NAL
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: one and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has only one defect: it is too short. According to Newsgroup rumor, McKiernan offered to remedy this but the Tolkien estate unaccountably turned him down. Whether or not this is true, McKiernan has certainly cloned Middle-earth for his world of Mithgar, home of Elves and Men, Dwarves and Warrows (hobbits). Mithgar is now the setting for numerous works, but the first was the Iron Tower trilogy, which comprises The Dark Tide, Shadows of Doom and The Darkest Day. Originally published as three books, there is now an omnibus edition too.

Like the Fellowship of the Ring, The Dark Tide opens in the land of the peaceful, rustic Warrows, who are practicing their archery because of reports of wolves. These soon turn out to be Vulgs (wargs), which are the forerunners of the standard repertoire of evil: Rucks (orcs), Ogrus (trolls), plus the zombie-like Ghuls. The story follows the fortunes of Tuck, who becomes part of a contingent of Warrows sent to reinforce the small army of Men facing the onslaught of the horde sent by the Dark Lord, Modru, who has manifested again after 4000 years. Most of the book then describes the opening siege and battle of this Great War of the Age.

There are three things you need to consider to determine whether you have any chance of enjoying this story. The first is, do you like large-scale, good-versus-evil fantasy like LotR? If not, you probably stopped reading this review two paragraphs ago. Next, how do you feel about LotR clones? If you hate the very notion, this book is not for you (and nor are many others, most much better than this).

Still here? Good, I prefer this type of fantasy too, and I’m perfectly happy for it to be cloned, providing it’s done well. Now the third thing to consider: how closely will you let a clone approach the original before reading it becomes pointless? Can the world be cloned, its history, its peoples? The characters themselves? The plot?

The answers to date: Most of Mithgar’s races mimic Middle-earth’s, some quite closely. What we’ve been told of history is reminiscent of Tolkien’s First Age. However the map is completely different, and the plot is similar only in that Evil is attacking Good with overwhelming force. There are no wizards, no Nazgul, no magic rings, no broken sword. Most importantly, there is no one-to-one correspondence of characters; in the past I’ve labored through clones where you just know that the next character introduced will be the Gandalf, followed by the Merry and the Pippin…

But, and it’s a big but, this is McKiernan’s first attempt at a novel. It shows. While one or two characters have a certain depth, most are shallow and unmemorable. The plot-line is simplistic and predictable, with no variety or sub-plots; and what will doubtless turn out to be the ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card is dealt with considerable lack of subtlety. The narrative writing is acceptable, but dialogue is poor.

So there’s considerable room for improvement. This is McKiernan’s apprentice work. Lets hope he gets the hang of writing in the next two books.

(Note — For simplicity, from now on I’ll use the original, LoTR names most of the time.)

I had seen The Iron Tower described as a rather close copy of LotR, but on reading book one this seemed to be unfair. I should have deferred judgement! Most of Shadows of Doom follows the wanderings around Middle-earth of the surviving protagonists, and a rather large chunk of this involves a journey through the old dwarf kingdom of Moria, deserted for many generations since dwarves mining a mithril seam released a balrog hiding since the end of the first Age. Yes, that’s right, it’s as blatant as that! In fact it’s worse: before the magic gate of Moria, in an orc-created lake there lurks a kraken; once inside our heroes find the remains of a previous dwarf expedition, in a chamber that ends up collapsing. McKiernan even parrots “We cannot get out. We cannot get out”, though I suspect this is intended ironically.

That’s the bad news out of the way. In mitigation, McKiernan’s Gargon differs significantly from a balrog, radiating fear rather than using magic; and I rather liked the notion of the kraken being delivered by air-mail. Although the writing is only a little improved, at least in this book the story line is split, the viewpoint following three separate characters; which provides welcome variety. And we are told more about the history and structure of this universe. In fact the latter is done better than Tolkien’s, with a sensible system of upper/middle/lower spheres, and logical explanations for how they are connected.

Over all, this book would have been something of an improvement on its predecessor had it not been for the Moria misjudgement. With it, I certainly feel a sense of wonder: that it avoided a writ.

The Darkest Day is the third of the Iron Tower trilogy. The three plot-lines from Shadows of Doom merge again as those characters who hadn’t already ridden south do so, to join up with those who had; whereupon they all ride back north again, exhausting their steeds to get there in time. They end up arriving early, resulting in 2 days of thumb-twiddling until the timing is right. At last the good magic weapon that we met in book one confronts the evil magic weapon introduced in book two, with predictable results. There then follow 60 pages of going home and living happily ever after, and (this being a Tolkien clone) a 40 page appendix.

In terms of plot, this is easily the flimsiest of the trilogy: we know in advance what has to be done, when it needs to be done, and by whom. But at least there is no more wholesale scene-stealing as in Shadows of Doom (though there a few familiar-sounding names and places); the writing is less bad than in The Dark Tide; and the climax is acceptably managed. On the other hand we learn nothing new about the world or its history, and there are no new characters of import.

To summarize the trilogy as a whole, the word that springs to mind is ‘weak’. The writing is bad and the characterization poor (though both improve as McKiernan learns on the job). I could have forgiven these faults had the plot been better; but it is (to be kind) mediocre…. Right, that’s enough kindness: the plot has an enormous hole in it. Modru (Sauron) has been hiding for 4000 years. Now he finally has a blockbuster weapon. All he needs to do is to sit on his hands for a few weeks, then use the thing in private and he’s won. So what does he do? He attacks everyone to let them know he’s around, then abducts the heroine and drags her to his fortress, ensuring everyone follows just in time to foil him. Doh!

The message to anyone considering reading this trilogy is: if you haven’t already read The Lord of the Rings, read that. If you have, read it again.

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