Review by Paeter Frandsen
The Summoner, by Gail Z. Martin, is the first book in the Chronicles Of The Necromancer series. Prince Martris Drayke is on the run, accompanied by a band of close friends, after his evil older brother murders the rest of their family in a grab for the throne.
Martris, or Tris as he is known by his friends, must find a way to regain the throne and save the land from the evil rule of his brother. But to do so he must also learn to use his new found abilities as a necromancer, one who communicates with and commands power over the dead.
Meanwhile, an evil mage allied with Tris' brother is unleashing dark supernatural creatures that wreak havoc in search of the hiding prince, placing the entire land in danger.
Tris and his friends must gain allies, among both the living and the dead, to restore peace and safety to the kingdom.
I have very specific tastes when it comes to the fiction books I read. I read only fantasy, and avoid authors who write lengthy descriptions about trees, doorknobs and buttons, building a world instead of sympathetic characters. For me to enjoy a fantasy novel, the author cannot simply give me an action-packed quest, or tell me the details of what is happening. They must take me inside the minds of the characters and make me understand what they are thinking and why, as well as make me feel some of what they are feeling.
Martin delivers on a number of fantasy tropes that I like. An epic quest (including a quest for a magic sword!), a group of close-knit heroes with different skills and personalities (mage, healer, bard, thief, fighter, scholar, etc.) and the learning of ancient and powerful secrets of magic that demand a great price from those who make use of them.
But Martin also adds a fairly unique layer to the traditional fantasy backdrop: a world themed around spirits, the undead and the afterlife.
In this world, magic is mysterious and powerful, but isn't primarily about the usual fireballs and protective shields. Magic is used to heal, see visions of far away places, speak with the dead, or help the dead "cross over" into the afterlife. In this way, the book's concept of magic seems influenced by modern spiritualism or mediums. Vampires also play an important role in this world. Some are good, some are evil. These differences bring a unique feel to the world that makes it worth exploring.
Martin's prose is easy to read, with descriptive word choices that don't sound too formal or archaic. She also paces the story well, despite it's considerable 600+ page length.
I could have used just a little more character development overall, or for her characters to be a little more tormented, but most readers will not be as particular in this regard, and may find that her writing reads similar in some ways to the Weis/Hickman Dragonlance novels, having enough character development to help you care, but also providing action and keeping things propelled by the story.
I would have liked a couple of her characters to be just a little more different from each other, with slightly more varied skill sets and names. The cast is large enough and a few of the characters similar enough that I had to really stay focused now and then to keep them separate in my mind. Future books in this series include an appendix with character names and brief 1-2 sentence biographies, which fixes this minor problem in the remainder of the series. But the inclusion of such an appendix here, or more differentiated characters, would have been helpful in a couple of instances.
The theme of spirits, mediums and the undead was very interesting to read. This is a theistic world, in which a single Goddess with numerous "faces" is worshipped by most everyone. The faces of the Goddess include The Mother, The Childe, The Lover and The Crone, each with a distinct and very different personality. The concept made me wonder if it was based on the different ways the God of the Bible has related with humanity throughout history, or on the popular yet illogical idea that "all religions lead to the same God".
Either way, I found it interesting that this Goddess would allow spirits to be trapped on the earth, imprisoned by mages (as is the case with some spirits in this story). It seems to me that a Being who is truly supreme would not allow this kind of power over the eternal soul to be given to mortals. Then again, it may be as all things are in this life, that people may SEEM to have power over others, but in the end only God is in control.
The nature of the spiritual world presented in The Summoner is interesting and continues to make me curious about the worldview of the author and what, if any, commentary she may be subtly making (intentionally or not) about real-world spiritual matters.
The style of this book seems to be a middle ground between plot/action-driven fiction and character/emotion-driven fiction. I suspect a large number of people may find Martin's writing "good" and this book enjoyable, but few will actually stay up late to read "just one more chapter".
A good fantasy novel to "get around to someday", but not a must-read experience.
As a side note, since I may not review the remaining three books in this series, my feelings on the other books are very similar to this one. The Summoner is a very good representation of the series as a whole and should give you all you need to know to determine whether or not you will like books 2-4 as well.