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Book Review: Across the Face of the World by Russell Kirkpatrick

Genre: Epic Fantasy
ISBN: 0316003417
ISBN-13: 9780316003414
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 736pp
Publisher: Orbit
Pub. Date: January 01, 2008
Series: Fire of Heaven Trilogy

Marco Polo is probably the best known traveler in the world (okay, maybe only after Rick Steves) but the epic nature of his journey from Europe into the very heart of China, and back again is something that is inspirational. You can see elements of the beauty and grandeur of such travel in The Hobbit, when Bilbo Baggins travels there and back again. And in the same tradition of epic travel, seeing sights and undertaking impossible odds is the debut novel from Russell Kirkpatrick, Across the Face of the World.

Having gathered a following in his native New Zealand and Australia, Kirkpatrick has jumped the pond to the United States as part of Orbit’s breakthrough into the US market. Across the Face of the World is a novel filled with lush scenery, the clash of climate and geography, and the characters who must brave the elements. Kirkpatrick, a geographer by trade, has brought that skill to bear full force in Across the Face of the World. The setting is rich and detailed. Kirkpatrick is well versed in the nuances and effect geography has on a people and this comes out in detail in novel, the first in a trilogy.

The story’s primary character is Leith, an amalgam of Kirkpatrick’s own life experiences, who is the runty child, the dork who stands on the edge of the playground, waiting to get picked for sports. Leith has an older brother named Hal, a crippled foundling with mystical abilities. When Leith’s parents are taken captive by evil swordsmen, he and his brother are forced to embark on a journey to both rescue them, and warn the rest of Faltha that and army unseen for one thousand years has returned, and is bent on vengeance and conquering.

The majority of this 667 page novel is the journey of Leith, Hal, and the companions they bring along with them. Kirkpatrick does an excellent job of giving us scale, as rather than glossing over the rigors of the journey with phrases like “several weeks later” he really pushes the reader to feel the aches and pains of a winter journey through snow clogged passes, with the inevitable squabbling of a company made up of two old men, a girl, a cripple, and a couple of brash men making the journey even more difficult.

As I mentioned before, the scenery is lush, and lovingly portrayed. Sweeping vistas, rushing rapids, and precarious terrain are all described in great detail. Almost too much detail in a way. Kirkpatrick obviously loves geography, and all his mountains are named, all his rivers have a story, and all have some unique feature that must be described. It can get a bit tedious.

The irony is that while each mountain has a name, each region of the map a story, the characters rarely have names, are more often called by their professions, and there are so many that it is often difficult to keep them straight in your head. Kirkpatrick will also switch point of view from one paragraph to the next, and the relaxed reader will likely miss the transition, causing a bit of confusion till your mind catches up with your eye.

Christians, and those from a Christian cultural heritage, will see a lot of imagery and language gleaned from the Christian faith. There is one god of the world, a rebellious immortal evil character (i.e. Satan), and the rest of us lowly peons just trying to make our way in the world. But readers should be careful before they call this novel a Christian one. It simply borrows from the experience of the writer, but is more deist in tone than Christian. God is absent in this story, and men are left to make their own way in the world against an overwhelming evil. I mention this specifically because the story does spend significant time addressing issues of faith, although Across the Face of the World raises more questions than it answers. So readers should be careful before they try to peg the story as Christian. It is a quest novel, and in this day and age, a great deal of our questing comes in the form of questions about belief and faith, something Kirkpatrick recognized and has incorporated into his work.

This novel has beautiful, Tolkeinesque settings. If you enjoy reading fantasy for the setting and physical world building that the author attempts, than this novel just might be one you enjoy. If you are looking for something original in plot or story, this is not the book for you. Kirkpatrick’s novel is very closely modeled on Tolkien to the point that the two plots follow the very same story arc. That said, Kirkpatrick’s world is his own, the quest is significantly different, and where Tolkien relies on character, Kirkpatrick relies on setting and events to drive the story forward. There is little fighting, although there are small adventures and strange encounters along the way.

To be fair in describing the characterization of Across the Face of the World, it is written in such a way that we are given flashes of the characters, rather than the slow building and revealing of their natures that is more common in fiction. It can be disconcerting to the reader, who might think that the characters are flat and uninteresting. But it is simply that the reader is not allowed to plumb the depths of their soul, but is instead only allowed to see the nature of the characters in their reactions to events and their behavior towards what is going on around them. Kirkpatrick was probably partly forced into this because their are so many characters, and rather than focus on one, he gives the reader glimpses of all so does not have the pages to show all of their nature. (If he had tried to really plumb the depths of all the characters, Kirkpatrick would have to be another Jordan, Martin, or Goodkind, with long novels in long series, in order to complete the narrative.) So we get flat seeming characters, mostly because it is hard for the reader to keep them straight in their minds, not because they lack emotion or reactions.

Ultimately, I can only put some force behind a recommendation. The novel is a long one, so it is daunting to slower readers, and lacks enough action to keep fast readers riveted. It was rather easy to put down Across the Face of the World and turn to doing other things for me, and I even found myself skipping descriptions of some of the setting towards the end of the novel. There is simply too much of it, and not enough character. (Although the character of Stella is a surprisingly strong female character, one who is definitely not relegated to the role of love interest or foil for men. Yet the story does not give us enough of her to really feel connected.) Kirkpatrick has built a world but has failed to people it with characters the reader can identify with, save perhaps Leith to a small extent. I would say that for the most part, this is one novel you can avoid and not really feel the loss too keenly.