Forget the three stars for just a second and listen: Ardalia, the Breath of Aoles, is a good book. There are lots of qualities inherent in this book that are pretty incredible. The characters have real personality even though they are basically aliens, and even the bizarre (and a little twisted) Malians come across as really intricate and complex.
The book begins with Pelmen doing the work his father has chosen for him, before his sixteenth birthday, when two things are going to happen: one, he will be allowed to make his choice about whether he wishes to continue to apprentice to his dad, or seek out apprenticeship somewhere else, whether that be in the village or deeper in the canyons. Two: everyone will have the choice to pack up and leave for another village, town, or city. The tanner’s life is not for Pelmen; he and his buddy’s dad have helped him choose a different caste for Pelmen: that of a hunter.
Pelmen is good with a bow, but not so much with the wrestling, as he soon learns. All this comes crashing on its face when his best friend’s father dies, and the best friend loses the woodworking shop because he can’t pass the journeyman trial (which is rigged, a spectacular bit of disgusting politics drummed up by the author).
So as the book goes along, there’s a sort of iris which continually expands to let in more and more light about how the world runs. Pelmen, just a poor boy from a poor family, is gradually exposed to more and more of what he thought he always knew, and some things he had never even dreamed of. In this way, the world building of this strange alien society is revealed to be quite intricate and well planned out.
Character dialogue, motivations, and interactions are all great. Pelmen gradually comes into his own as the book progresses, and more and more about his uncle, Xuven, is revealed, enough so that he gets his own nice third dimension.
Forget elves, dwarves, trolls and dragons. In Ardalia, you have all sorts of alien species that fit well into the ecosystem of a low-magic world, which is sort of elemental in its own way. The originality is excellent here.
So back to the three stars. Yeah.
It’s with great reluctance that we here at AIA give the book three stars. There are a few reasons for this. The first is with the beginning 15-20% of the book, where naming conventions (the Uncrossable Mountains? Really?) and a slew of pronouns really drag the book… once we head out of the 20% range, the book really blooms into something brilliant, but at first we’re beset by sentences like: ‘The driver of the vehicle to the rear, whose features he could not make out because of the glare, had seen him, however, he must have thought him inconsequential, for he contented himself with shaking his head to show his disapproval.’ or ‘Perhaps he was even making a fool of him.’
In the first 20%, characters haven’t been introduced properly, get names out of nowhere, and there are a slew of awkward sentences that ought to be cleaned up for clarity. There are also more than a handful of punctuation and formatting issues, which distract from the reading experience.
The second large issue is the author’s vocabulary, which is impressive. The problem is, there are memorable words. Not just five or ten dollar words, but some one dollar words that can’t really be used more than once in a hundred pages… these words stick in your mind like peanut butter in your mouth. There are a few of these, but the most prevalent is ‘supple’ and it comes across too many times for comfort.
Lastly, the book’s ending, while a sort of resolution, is abrupt and somewhat not fulfilling enough. It is a very clear lead-in to the second book, and while this sort of thing was made acceptable by Tolkien, Robert Jordan, and George RR Martin, it leaves the reader feeling let down in terms of some falling action. Even a little.
AIA’s four and five star ratings include those of spectacular works you’d find in mainstream publishing, and good books you’d find in mainstream publishing. While this book has plenty of merits, and it is a good read, the flaws certainly detract from any illusion that this book might be found in a large scale bookstore with a major publishing house attached to it.