Friday, October 2, 2020

"The Six and the Crystals of Ialana," by Katlynn Brooke--Fiction Review

Alright, my obscure readers, today we’re talking about a YA fantasy novel by Katlynn Brooke, “The Six and the Crystals of Ialana.” Other than fantasy violence at the same level as “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings,” this book might be a good pick as an introduction to fantasy for younger readers.  

Katlynn Brooke

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This book has a similar feel to it to Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows,” which was a novel I rather quite liked. Like that story, you can see that Brooke spent a lot of time developing the world of Ialana. There is a robust feeling of place and description of all of the various settings that the characters pass through throughout the book. Furthermore, Brooke has the knack of making these different places and societies feel like they continue on with their own motives and plans even when the lens we view the world through moves on to somewhere else.  

The whole narrative is a bit of a mystery, there is this reincarnation angle to it, and you’re gradually figuring out what original mission the six were on, before their untimely deaths, with them. It’s an interesting spin on a coming of age story to also have the characters deal with the idea they were reincarnated, and it didn’t go well last time. 

I like the lost advanced civilization motif in my fantasy and extra points to shifting the style toward the end of the story from a straight sword and sorcery fantasy to a more science fantasy angle. Some of my favorite stories from my formative years go that direction. I seriously could listen to a set up of magic as a technology for ages. 

What I don’t love about this book:

Unfortunately, the character work is one of the weakest parts of the story to me, especially with the antagonists of the story. 

The six break down to three boys, three girls—and yes, they all pair off in some way, which I find annoying—and one spare guy named Blaidd, whom I wouldn’t trust on a walk to the local coffee shop, let alone across a continent. It continually strikes me as weird that they let him keep on with them, and the explanation is: well, he’s Adain’s friend. Ok, but why? Well, they just were since they were kids, and it seems like he was always a narcissistic sociopath then too, but there you go. 

Now, this is going to be a weird thing to say in this section for some, get your pitchforks ready, but this novel’s start reminded me a whole lot of “The Eye of the World” first book of the “Wheel of Time” series. So—I am not in love with “The Eye of the World.” In fact, it’s one of the only books I stopped reading for years before going back to it and finishing it. I know—I know, but the “Wheel of Time” is foundational for so many people? Brandon Sanderson himself finished the series! How do you sleep at night—you monster!? But you know, the good news is if you like that whole set up of the farm boys and girls, with a magical destiny, like “The Eye of the World,” then you might like this book—and I might just have something wrong with me.  

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Author's Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

So, much like “Eye of The World,” this book opens with something violent happening to people we don’t know yet. There is a torture bit, some telepathy, and some talk about setting a backup plan in motion. Then the perspective character catches an ax to the brainpan. 
Smash jump to five hundred years later to meet our main character, of sorts, Jarah, a baker’s son. Jarah is a listless youth working in his father’s bakery, pressured by his mother to find a wife, and not so sure that he wants to live the rest of his life in such a prosaic way like his parents. That is until a recruiter for the military shows up in the small town. 

Jarah and two other boys from the village—Adain, the local teen heartthrob, and Blaidd professional dickhead—get “recruited” at sword point. Blaidd, of course, thinks this is all wonderful and that the military will toughen up Jarah, who he derides as a weakling. Something he continues to think right up until it becomes clear that they’re basically going to be slaves and shock troops and noncompliance results in death. They get out of it, though, because Jarah and Adain have weird dreams, and a soldier, who is also having similar dreams, hears them and helps them make a run for it, oh, and Blaidd is there too.  

As for the girls, we have Kex, my favorite, a member of a group of wandering tribal nomads. She’s getting set up for a whole arranged marriage thing she doesn’t want and instead takes off on her own—good for you, Kex. 

Then there is Djana and Tegan, who both have similar setups that boil down to terrible people come and may or may not have killed their parents. Tegan, though, ends up falling in with Jarah and his group, whereas poor Djana ends up wandering the wilds on her own for probably months.

The main group gets relentlessly pursued by the military that they went AWOL from until they reach some mountains, where a telepathic cat-like creature rescues them. The soldiers, in turn, get absolutely wrecked by monsters. There’s a reason those mountains are avoided. It’s there that the group, minus Djana, get some rest, find out that they’re special and are the reincarnations of six great healers, who were on some mission with their special healing crystal until their unfortunate demise, which came about because someone betrayed them. It was Blaidd, it was totally him, well a prior incarnation of him at least.

From there, the main group sets out on their adventures into the mountains, learn more about their powers, and eventually meet Djana when chased into a vast cave system that gives me the same impression as the Underdark—my fellow D&D nerds will get that reference. Anyway, they find the crystal, escape back to the surface, and end up on the outskirts of the same city Djana came from. Blaidd takes this time to take off into the city fully intent on immediately betraying the six. Hey, jerks gotta be jerks. I was pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t initially go well for him, and he gets thrown in prison. The six escape the city via boat to a mysterious island where their former incarnations hailed from; the journey is, of course, perilous.

On the island, the characters get introduced to the science-fantasy elements of this story, and it’s my favorite part. We learn that there are parallel dimensions, and the main antagonist, a lizard-like entity that sets himself up as a despot ruler, is from one of those parallel dimensions. The monsters of the world and the animal-like humans were twisted and corrupted by a kind of unnatural power. The six’s original goal was to use their healing crystal to fix the corruption until Blaidd betrayed them to old lizardy himself, which got them and himself killed.

The genius that he is, Blaidd, tries to do essentially the same thing again when he shows up at the island unexpectedly. The six see through him this time, and use his plan against him to save Djana’s parents and family friends, and ultimately blow up the palace of the big bad lizard. Blaidd survives, somehow, which just goes to show you can’t always get what you want.        


Ok—I can see it too—I’m a bit hard on this Blaidd character. He’s an antagonist, so a certain amount of hostility is expected as part of the story. I think I’m annoyed so much by him because I don’t understand him. His logic is terrible. His motivations are nonsensical to me, and I especially don’t get why so many people keep giving him second chances as though he’s done anything to warrant them. 

This leads me into my biggest critique of this novel in general—it isn’t just Blaidd that I don’t get—I don’t understand any of the villains in this book. They’re all of the mustache-twirler caliber of villain. What I mean by that is they’re unsatisfying because in regards to the question, why is this character evil? The answer is an unqualified and unexamined: yes. That’s a wordy way of saying it’s clunky. 

Part of this is because of the target audience’s age, complex, morally ambiguous characters that do both good and evil actions are a bit much for a younger audience. Still, why I think this book doesn’t do quite enough by its baddies is Blaidd might think he’s doing something for the greater good. But, I can’t imagine the military recruiter guy or the lizard king can rationalize to even themselves that anything they do is for anything’s benefit. They are evil for evil’s sake, and why there hasn’t been a coup d’etat earlier on is odd.

On the protagonists’ side, as in the six themselves, their biggest problem is they ultimately felt like only four people to me. What I mean by that is there was a lot of overlap in character voice.

Parting thoughts:

Overall, I think “The Six and the Crystals of Ialana” is a book where development amongst its elements is out of balance. Brooke clearly has put in a lot of thought and care into how the world of Ialana works and looks. I don’t feel one way or another on her plotting or pacing, which always indicates to me that it can’t be bad. I should explain, though, my personal opinion is that if a story element doesn’t raise comment one way or another, then it simply did its job, which is a good thing. The bit that is out of wack is the people who live in and experience Ialana—they’re all just a bit too thin to satisfy.

The balance between story elements is probably the hardest thing to master. Each writer is always naturally more gifted at developing particular elements more than others. The rub is to tell a compelling story, every element of a story has to be addressed—well unless you’re doing something experimental, which more often than not doesn’t work. 

To get better at a particular story aspect that a writer struggles with, they have to focus more energy and time on it than what they’re naturally good at, which can be frustrating. This is a concept related to when I discussed jumping around to the exciting bits when writing to increase output. If you just focus on your strengths, then your weaknesses will seem all the thinner. 

To make things even more complicated, it’s possible to focus so much on improving the areas in your writing where you are weakest that they become strengths. It sounds like a good thing, right? Sure, that’s growth. Typically, though, what used to be your natural strengths when writing are now your weaknesses, and you have to do the whole process over again, but now the other way. 

But Kevin—you may ask—when do I just get to be an awesome writer and not be continuously pressured by this grinding process of incrementally improving myself? Well, I’ll tell you—after about ten thousand hours of practice, it’s only another half past—never. Never is the answer. It’s a life long process. Good luck, buddy! You’ve always got Kevin rooting for you, or at least until the ration packets run out in my obscurity dome.

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