The Fifth Ring, by Mitchell Graham

the-fifth-ring-by-mitchell-graham coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Charles Wolfe

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Everyone has a favorite pair of shoes that are broken in just right. You put them on knowing they’re going to be comfortable and familiar.

The Fifth Ring, by Mitchell Graham, is a lot like that. It’s the first book of book of an epic trilogy from Harper Collins/Eos. There are no surprises here, only a really good read. Although the characters tend to follow established tried and true archetypes, they are engaging and do their jobs extremely well.

Mathew Lewin, a young boy from rural Elgaria comes into possession of an odd rose gold ring. It’s not a magic ring, but the remnants of a technological marvel created by the “Ancients” three thousand years before. Hidden deep in the planet core is a the machine they built, still functioning, that allowed them to turn thought into reality. Thus, author Graham manages to talk about magic without every mentioning it.

Lewin himself is a wonderful character, as is his mentor Father Thomas, whose shadowy background will keep readers intrigued. Lewin is shy, lacks confidence in himself and has a tendency to get seasick from time to time. Watching him mature as a person is one of the delights in reading a story like this.

In a sense “ring books” all owe homage to Tolkien (actually, ring tales have been around since the Viking days–and probably before that! Ed.), but there is very little in terms of mimicry in this one. The society Graham creates has people complaining about taxes and inflation. They also have their own regional prejudices and tend to be up on what’s happening politically with government officials, who they look at with careful eyes. To be sure this is a quest, but the story is far more about relationships and the growth of its characters than about things exploding.

And speaking of things exploding, something that really impressed me were the titanic battles between Mathew Lewin and the evil Karas Duren. I would challenge anyone to point to better work in fantasy literature. Good vs. evil is a theme that comes as no surprise (like those comfortable shoes), but it’s tried and true and makes for an excellent storyline.

I particularly enjoyed the humor interspersed throughout the book. It added well to the overall charm of the story. Mr. Graham’s writing style is smooth and professional, certainly a far sight better than many of his contemporaries (the names have been withheld to protect the guilty). Rumor has it that DreamWorks and two other studios are now looking at The Fifth Ring for a movie–not a bad accomplishment for a first-time author.

Conclusion: Make no mistake this is a major work. The only negative I can find is that it’s a trilogy. If the publisher sticks to the standard “publisher’s playbook,” they’ll stretch things out over the next two installments for two more years. Somebody really ought to give those guys a reality pill and let them know a lot of people will hold back buying a trilogy until it’s complete for this very reason. With that off my chest, I can definitely recommend The Fifth Ring to anyone who is looking for a great book to live in. It’s a soaring story with marvelous characters and a world you just love to roam around in.

The Fifth Ring review by Wendy Casuerla
The Fifth Ringis the first book of a trilogy from HarperCollins, scheduled for release this January as one of their lead titles. It’s also the first original paperback the Eos imprint has published.

The story is an interesting one that initially can’t decide whether it’s science fiction or fantasy. In the end it comes down more on the fantasy side, due to Graham’s crafting a scenario where the two main characters, Mathew Lewin and Karas Duren, go at each other with rings that let them turn thought into matter. The rings, you see, were created by their ancestors three thousand years ago and have been lost over the ensuing millennia.

Mathew Lewin acquires the ring after a fencing tournament. Unfortunately, he has no idea what it does. Lewin is tone deaf, has a weak stomach, and is painfully shy, but turns out to be a wonderful hero. Set against him is a fellow named Karas Duren, who is king of the neighboring country of Alor Satar, and an absolute honey of a madman. Duren also has one of the rings and is fully aware of its power. He’s not just bent on taking over the world, he wants to destroy Mathew’s country, obliterating its very existence.

The mention of a ring inevitably draws Frodo-like comparisons, but that’s where the similarity ends. Mathew Lewin is a very human fellow, with all the foibles and strengths that readers will take to. He makes mistakes, but is capable of great nobility.

The plot of The Fifth Ringtends to be formulaic, a clearly defined battle between good and evil. Typically, such scenarios involve a young boy from a remote section of the country who is forced to leave his home, and go on a quest, generally under the guidance of an older, wiser man. This is the case here, but it works extremely well, just as it has worked since Homer’s Odyssey. There are no deep philosophical issues for readers to wrestle with, only a crackling good story. The older man in this instance is Siward Thomas, a priest with a past, and one of the more memorable characters to come along in quite a while. Thomas is complex, charming, and quite deadly when he wants to be. Mr. Graham drops hints here and there, but never comes right out and tells the reader about Father Thomas background.

In recent years it has become de rigueur for fantasies to include action sequences and sword fights. You will not be disappointed here, because the battles in The Fifth Ringwill absolutely leave you breathless. Mr. Graham himself, is a former fencing champion and knows how to craft a sword fight to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Fifth Ringis an elegant story, presented with style and subtlety. There is humor aplenty and I actually found myself laughing out loud in certain parts of the book, which is not a good thing to do if you’re riding the New York subway at the time.

Underlying the quest-type theme are compelling male-female relationships, and the corrupting effect of absolute power on both hero and villain. Graham also begins to play with the question of what happens to a character who violates the law, a theme which he will presumably expand in book two of the trilogy.

There are no fairies, trolls or elves, in the story, but there are creatures called Orlocks, similar perhaps to H.G.Wells’s, “Morlocks,” but with very distinct differences. These guys are intelligent, resourceful and scary.

What it all comes down to is this is fantasy at its best.

The Call: This is one of the finest books to come along in years. Mitchell Graham can take his place right next to today’s other best-selling fantasy authors.

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