Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

Book Review: The Four Forges by Jenna Rhodes

* Genre: Epic Fantasy
* ISBN: 0756402743
* ISBN-13: 9780756402747
* Format: Hardcover, 368pp
* Publisher: DAW
* Pub. Date: May 2006
* Series: Elven Ways Series, #1

Rarely do I not like a book at all. But occasionally, a novel just doesn’t resonate. Sometimes it’s just reading the novel at the wrong time, perhaps at a time of reading burnout, or a style that just doesn’t click. But even rarer is the book that I find to be just awfully written. Jenna Rhodes’ The Four Forges is just awful. Rhodes (a pseudonym for a prolific YA author) writes an epic fantasy with a great setting, but a disturbing lack of a central plot.

The setting, which I found to be unique, and part of the reason I picked up the novel in the first place, is full of high fantasy elements. Rather than doing a standard epic, in which a young orphan grows up to become the hero or heroine through becoming a great fighter or battle mage, in Rhodes novel we have two orphans who become something quite different. Sevryn is an accomplished street waif who rises to become the right hand of the queen of the elves. Rivergrace is an orphan who ends up being raised by a loving family of hobbit/dwarf-like people called Dwellers. In this story, however, the elves are not native to the world, and in fact came to the world of Kerith by some magical accident. The elves (called Vaelinar) quickly assert their dominance over the other goodly four races of Kerith, three of whom are native, one of which were created by the human magic users. The magic users of Kerith have destroyed themselves, long before the Vaelinar came, and the world consists mostly of city states and fiefdoms. Elves are the only people with magic anymore, and that comes from a native talent inborn in them.

Sevryn, a human/elf hybrid, has a magical talent which he uses in service to the queen of elves. Rivergrace is without magic, but there is something unique about her nature which is revealed in the final chapters.

I stated before that I consider this book awfully written. From the description above, you most likely think that this story may have some quality to it. But you would be wrong. The tale really doesn’t start until about the last 150 pages of the 611 page mass market paperback edition. Everything that comes before is a simplistic character building interspersed with action that the author feels is necessary to keep your attention, but does little to move the plot forward. The novel is more like a work of contemporary fiction, which focuses on the characters simply being and living, rather than an high fantasy of magic and battles, at least until the last 150 pages.

The story is full of plot threads, subplots and a multitude of characters. While some authors are able to weave many threads together to make a cohesive whole, which creates a beautiful tapestry, Rhodes is unable to pull it together. What the reader gets is a lot of loose threads, fraying at the edges as you read deeper and deeper into the story. While the ultimate ending of the story is foreshadowed in the beginning, there are so many rabbit trails and unnecessary scenes that the reader loses track of the point of the tale.

For example, one scene calls for the two primary characters to travel together fro some weeks to retrieve a particular item. All Rhodes does with this entire chapter is establish that they are being followed and are in danger (a fact previously established in many other chapters and scenes). Rhodes eventually has these two characters get together in a love match, but rather than build that love story in this scene, it is left alone, such that when these two get together, it is a surprise, especially for the Rivergrace character whose emotions are never elucidated, though the opportunity had presented itself many times. Essentially, the chapter is wasted. Especially since it was unnecessary, as the item they retrieve could have been kept by Rivergrace’s Dweller mother in the beginning of the story. These sort of extra scenes are common throughout the story, and add length but not depth to the tale.

The plot is so convoluted and unconnected that after reading the story, I found myself unable to summarize it. I could summarize its final pages, as that is where the story really happens, but that’s it. There are a lot of scenes with things happening, a whole side plot regarding the Dweller families money troubles, and a second focusing on Sevryn’s past, but they have little to do with how the story ends. Nor does the title have anything to do whatsoever with the story. There is a poem about the four forges that is somehow tied to Sevryn, but rather than unraveling the mystery of it, Sevryn (who had lost 18 years of his memory at one point) simply gains it all back by seeing the an item of his lost mentor’s. It makes no sense to include the four forges poem if you are not going to use it as part of the story.

Rhodes also writes a great deal in passive voice. Lots of sentences use as verbs words like “has been” instead of true action verbs like “struck” or even “thought”. This makes the tale eminently harder to read, and makes it near impossible for the reader to get excited about the events the author is relating. Additionally, Rhodes uses phrase that are distinctly modern and out of place in a high fantasy world the most jarring of which was “take them out” something no high fantasy character should ever say. It sounds like a ’50s gangster or James Bond like spy, not an elf warrior.

Much of the dialogue is dull, usually consisting of one sentence question and replies. Rhodes’ writing instead relies on long paragraphs of description which suffer from the passive voice previously mentioned. The characters are thereby flat, dull, and uninteresting, even Sevryn, whose perspective is written in first person.

The beginning of the novel uses dates beneath the chapter number and the end does as well, but the middle portion of the book has no dates whatsoever on it. Why use a dating system if you don’t plan to use it consistently at the beginning of every chapter throughout? It is more confusing than helpful.

The book has two redeeming qualities. First, the setting is unique, and in more capable hands, I would want to know a great deal about the world of Kerith. As it is, I barely understand the history that is informing on the actions of the present. Secondly, Rhodes is good at writing about the family unit. The story of Rivergrace and her adopted Dweller family is cute, and Rhodes does a good job of showing their intimacy and the ties that bind them. She also gives them mundane problems which resonate with the reader.

I have to conclude that this novel is not worth the effort of reading. I had to force myself to finish it. Leave this one on the shelf and go get another, from a writer who can write a tale with a consistent story arc. Find a tale that has a rising action, climax, and concluding action in a neat package. The Four Forges by Jenna Rhodes is a loose collection of unrelated subplots that obscure the true story, have poor characterization, and an annoying writing style. It’s not worth your time.

The sequel to this novel, The Dark Ferryman, releases in June of 2008.