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The Fifth Sorceress
Robert Newcomb
Del Rey Books, 591 pages

Justin Sweet
The Fifth Sorceress
Robert Newcomb
Robert Newcomb traveled widely in his youth as a member of the American Institute for Foreign Study, studying at the University of Southampton, England, and aboard a university-sponsored ship in the Mediterranean sea. After graduating from Colgate University with a B.A. in economics and a minor in art history, he enjoyed a successful career in business. He lives in Florida with his wife, a neuropsychologist and novelist herself.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

As may come as no surprise to anyone, despite the publisher's claims on the cover, this is hardly "The Epic Fantasy of the Year." Instead, The Fifth Sorceress is a fairly typical fledgling effort by a new author, at times well told but marred by poor decisions. In addition, the author appears to have borrowed rather liberally if loosely from a variety of other sources, undermining moments of originality, and thereby identifying the work more as a clone than differentiating itself from the pack of what has come before. Coupled with an over-reliance upon magic to drive and resolve developments in the story, as well as an occasional tendency to forget what has textually gone before, the difficulties plaguing this debut become fairly obvious.

The first problem stems from the initial premise: an epic struggle between wizards and sorceresses that threatens the welfare of the world. In and of itself neither new nor necessarily bothersome, others have handled this type of opposition effectively through complexity of characterization, an underlying message, or diversity in presenting the conflict. However here both the opposing cast and the conflict are reduced to a single narrative duality -- good and evil, light and darkness -- tied almost entirely to gender. The male wizards of the Directorate are noble, compassionate and enlightened, whereas the female sorceresses of the Coven are depraved, wanton man-haters, with little room left for characterization that does not conform to singular stereotype. Intended or not, this raises immediate issues of gender and typecasting that are hardly well-served by descriptions of ample cleavage, whips, spike heels and leather. While there are other female characters not identified with the Coven, in one way or another they all fall prey varying weaknesses, needing rescue, becoming seduced by the Coven, or ultimately raped and murdered. In some respects, the typecasting present in The Fifth Sorceress would be laughable were not the underlying assumptions disturbing or the author's presentation so earnest. And one is left to conjecture to whom this novel is meant to pander: adolescent boys who may not know better or the boors still left amongst male adults who somehow have managed to remain untouched by developments over the past thirty-some years in society. Certainly the author seems oblivious to longstanding and acceptable norms of literary criticism and theory.

Aside from this definitive and underlying flaw, the problems of stereotyping are compounded by typical elements of romanticism often associated with the genre, as well as a wide-ranging adoption of other clichés and tropes. Once again, we are faced with yet another reluctant if often impetuous hero, handsome to the point of attracting a bevy of blushing, eye-batting beauties to his bed who, though dismissed the morning after, are diligently treated with gentlemanly deference. The wizards, despite some effort to differentiate them from others of the genre, nonetheless wear robes of Gandalf grey, appear appropriately old and scholarly, and obviously know more than they are letting on. Heroes look and act like heroes, heroines the same if more suitably retiring and supportive and the antagonists are appropriately menacing in aspect. For the most part, you can tell the players by their appearance, and where not, such as in the hunchbacked Geldon or the leprous Ian, they are treated with the anticipated sympathy and pity.

As mentioned earlier, Robert Newcomb borrows freely from various fantasy conventions: there are angels (the Gallipolai) and their opposites, the dark and brutal, leathery-winged Minions. While there are no dwarves or hobbits, they are replaced with gnomes, at least one of whom offers moments of ale-inspired buffoonery parodying what we have supposedly come to love about the little people. The author is far more imaginative when it comes to the description of his creatures, such as the wiktor and the arboreal hunters of Shadowood, but unfortunately does not apply the same originality when it comes to his naming conventions, which include berserkers, blood stalkers and screaming harpies.

Perhaps more problematic is the apparent loose appropriation of ideas from other authors or popular culture. The weaponry of the returning wheel bears a striking resemblance to Xena's chackrum, and it's not difficult to figure out where the author came up with the name for The Eaters of the Dead or the idea for The Reckoning. More bothersome, though, is the apparent bald borrowing of ideas from Ricardo Pinto's Stone Dance of the Chameleon, with the seemingly direct appropriation of the concepts of The Chosen and a society predicated upon the purity of blood. While the presence of both in this novel may be evidence of synchronicity, the close if redirected parallels raise too many questions. Other derivative elements are liberally sprinkled throughout, from the firefly-like light of the Specters of the Gallipolai traceable to Donaldson, to Jordan's far from endearing habit of women biting their lips.

If one is able to get past these difficulties, once the story settles after the first few chapters the author does display a generous ability to spin a well-told if conventional saga, exhibiting adept pacing and the craft required to string along and develop his various subplots. At times, his potential for imaginative and original contributions to his narrative are revealed, as during the episode in which the sorceresses view the upcoming preparations for the abdication ceremony from their sanctum within the Recluse. Vividly described and framed within a richness of ritual unusual for its more conventional vehicle, this passage among others amply displays the author's talents for invention once freed from his reliance upon readily at hand conventions or storylines that have seeped into the expectation of fantasy until dogma confused as canon. There is little question as to the author's earnestness in telling a better than average yarn, and when he turns to his own imagination instead of depending upon other popular tropes, he succeeds despite his indebtedness and servitude to what has gone before. A little more trust in his own abilities might take this author far.

But for the moment, The Fifth Sorceress is shackled by its premise and devotion to outworn convention. Further, Robert Newcomb has been poorly served by his editor, both in letting the premise slip by as well as failing to correct inconsistencies present within the text. Early on within the story the protagonist falls through a hole into a cavern (p.48), landing forty feet on the stone floor below. The length of his fall is measured by a rock-carved stairway, off which he has bounced on his way down. However, two paragraphs later the length of both the stairway and his fall have grown to a hundred feet, leaving the reader to wonder not only at his survival relatively unscathed -- nary a bone broken -- but the unexplained coincidence by which his fall has been increased. Nor is this the only inconsistency encountered within the novel. Elsewhere (p. 434), Tristan confuses a discussion of the sorceress Succiu with his sister Shailiha. Typos abound, and the author is allowed near the end to repeat "the insanity never ends" until it assumes the aspect of a mantra. And one must wonder at the wisdom of allowing Tristan to dispatch one of his most fearsome foes through the pretense someone is behind his back -- oops: that old trick is bound to ensnare any seasoned warrior beyond the age of twelve! These mistakes are minor, though unfortunately all too noticeable. Readily corrected, they should not have gotten past a conscientious copy-editing, and one can only conclude that in these instances the publisher has failed the author.

There is an expectation in some quarters that this will become the launch of a popular series (at least two sequels are planned). Kirkus Reviews concludes this is "an intelligent debut, possibly headed for bestsellerdom." Publishers Weekly hails this as "surprisingly original," and draws comparison with George R.R. Martin's "camp of realistic fantasy." Aside from further evidence of how out of touch these mainstream review publications are when it comes to contemporary fantasy, the comparison to Martin is hardly apt. Granted, Newcomb has adopted Martin's rather grisly approach when regarding mayhem, and there are plenty of elements of intrigue, though this hardly originated with Martin, nor do the elements of conspiracy in this book approach the latter author's level of twisted complexity. More telling, however, is Newcomb's romanticizing of his characters (unless one accepts that Geldon's token disfigurement, or Faegan's crippling are the equivalent of Martin's use of Tyrion Lannister or Brandon Stark, among others, to deconstruct and subvert the traditional characterization of the romantic hero, which so far seems quite a stretch) as well as the adoption of the usual high fantasy conventions, which place this work solidly amongst the romantic tradition, regardless of any vicarious gestures towards "realism" or frills of mimicry, which based upon the author's wide borrowings elsewhere are more likely an acknowledgment of popular trends than any conscious desire to question or criticize the traditions of the genre. Evidence of this intention within the free adoption of romantic tropes elsewhere simply at present do not exist within this text.

The other notable difference comes with the author's use and reliance upon magic to drive as well as resolve his narrative plots. Comparatively, when viewed against authors such as Martin or John Marco, Newcomb's use of enchantment and sorcery is grand by any standard, and because of its sheer scale, a great amount of explication is required, an approach which Martin at least has publicly eschewed, preferring a strategy that retains a sense of mystery, lest magic become just another form of pseudo-science. In this respect, it can be argued that Martin is far more a traditionalist than Newcomb or even authors such as Jordan, who devote a great amount of time to explaining how their systems of magic work in order to lend them credibility. Such comparison ends, though, when it comes to applying sorcery with a broad, wide-sweeping brush.

In this respect, the observations by Kirkus and Publishers Weekly are preposterous and seemingly blind to both the merits and possible defects of any of the works discussed. To claim The Fifth Sorceress is "surprisingly original" ignores the many obvious borrowings present within the book, and claims of its being an "intelligent debut," while accurate in certain respects, overlooks many other moments of misstep and poor choices, such as the outward appearance of sexism, that would have been better reconsidered. Further, the opening and the ending pages to this book border dangerously upon being overwritten, far too many momentous events occurring, which even the hero himself is forced to acknowledge -- "So much had happened so quickly that not only his head, but his heart were overwhelmed..." -- that both risk becoming viewed as mere contrivance, lacking or seriously undermining the story's credibility. Not the best approach when it comes to the opening or conclusion of a novel.

Nonetheless, it would not surprise me to see Kirkus' prediction of popularity become true. When not stumbling over his own ready-made or oversized shoes, the author is able to generate a great degree of drama, with glimpses of originality and craft for which he can be justifiably pleased. And, as he has eliminated the source of some of his problems by story's end, he has positioned himself to take any sequels in new and hopefully less derivative directions. There is every evidence within this novel that should he free himself of his reliance upon earlier conventions and magical solutions to reconcile some of his plotting and conformance of setting, that he possesses both the basic writing skills as well as imagination to give the reader a work more approximate to the publisher's publicity claims. Despite the harshness of my criticisms here -- unfortunately unavoidable -- this is a debut, and based upon his moments of success, deserving of some benefit of the doubt, depending upon what the author does in future. He might yet one day become another author to watch.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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