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Book Review: Bitterwood by James Maxey

* Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
* ISBN: 184416487X
* ISBN-13: 9781844164875
* Format: Mass Market Paperback, 496pp
* Publisher: Solaris
* Pub. Date: June 2007
* Author Website

Straddling the blurry line between science fiction and fantasy, James Maxey’s Bitterwood will either be a real pleaser, or a total drag for readers. Innovative and provocative, Bitterwood defies standard classifications, and is one of those rare books that is nigh on impossible to review adequately. What follows is my pitiful attempt to inform you, dear reader, as to the strangeness and foibles of this unique story.

Ostensibly, the story is about the titular character, Bitterwood, a middle aged man bent on seeking revenge on the ruling class of dragons. Using wit, guile, and bow and arrow, Bitterwood wants to bring down the dragon power structure one giant lizard at a time. But these dragons are not you average fire breathing dullards. The dragons of Bitterwood are a complex, intelligent species, who use their greater strength and power to subjugate the whole of the human race. Nor are the dragons all of one mind about their treatment of the humans, a factor that plays a large role in the events that unfold. The story then follows a plot in which the King of the dragons and his servants work to do all they can to destroy Bitterwood, even as he gains some help from unlikely quarters.

I stated previously that this story blurs the line between science fiction and fantasy even more than it already is. To tell you exactly why would ruin a significant plot twist in the story, but suffice it to say that what might seem like a trope-filled standard fantasy story is anything but. Bitterwood is far from the paragon of virtue that the archetype Robin Hood is, and the true drive of the story is not a hero but a heroine named Jandra. A far cry from the standard love interest, this plucky heroine was my favorite character of the novel. Most of the story is told from her perspective, and when Bitterwood begins to lose faith in his mission, it is Jandra who provides the rallying cry for the human revolution.

Maxey also examines, at least in part, the themes of faith, martyrdom, and even slips in a little bit of the singularity. How one could slip in the singularity to a fantasy novel requires reading the story, you’ll not get me to ruin the best part of the story. I asked Maxey why he included quotes from the Bible and had at least one character who is essentially a lay preacher of Christianity in his story. His response was to say that he had been affected by his upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian household, and he felt that the Bible references he used simply had great poetry to them, and introduced the themes of the book’s chapters well. Maxey uses his lay preacher character as both villain and confidante to Bitterwood’s anti-hero, and Maxey’s own disappointments and doubts about faith and religion come through clearly in the story, but without being pedantic. Maxey presents no real answers to the questions he raises about faith, using this origin story of Bitterwood to vividly portray the angst of the character after he gains and loses faith. Such pain will resonate with many a reader.

Bitterwood, can drag a bit a times. Although the action is fast and furious, there were points where I wasn’t sure where the plot was going. Maxey is a relatively new writer, and his voice is still developing, so some of the grammatical structure and design may not be to every reader’s liking. It isn’t wholly smooth, though it is comfortable.

I was supremely confused by the lack of perspective from the titular character. Very little of the story is actually told from Bitterwood’s point of view, being told mostly by outside observers such as Jandra. Readers who do not like tropes should be warned that Maxey doesn’t really subvert tropes, only uses them in slightly modified ways. Also, when the big reveal happens later in the book, epic fantasy fans will be wondering if they have been fooled. Both types of readers should know that this book draws on elements from both epic fantasy and science fiction, with a lean more towards epic fantasy in setting, and science fiction in plot style and pacing.

I thought the book was great, in the way that reviewers always appreciate a book that is both familiar and o’ so subtly different. I was comfortable in reading this book as if it were a sword and sorcery adventure tale, and then Maxey throws me for a loop by introducing his preacher character (a thoroughly modern Christian one). But this was but a pale foreshadow to the big reveal about the nature of the world of Bitterwood and the hegemony of the dragons. It is plot twist that is surprising and enjoyable. Readers should read this book prepared to be surprised, and not to take anything for granted. I highly recommend this book for those readers looking for something unusual.

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