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Book Review: City of Jade by Dennis L. McKiernan

* Genre: Epic Fantasy
* ISBN: 0451462319
* ISBN-13: 9780451462312
* Format: Hardcover, 368pp
* Publisher: ACE
* Pub. Date: October 07, 2008
* Author Website

I hate to say it, because I have always liked the world of Mithgar, and most of the novels by Dennis L. McKiernan, but City of Jade is a real snooze-fest. Characters travel around, there are two battle scenes, and many characters nearly die, but are saved rather quickly. City of Jade lacks any real suspense. It’s Lord of the Rings without the trip to Mordor, or George R. R. Martin without the political intrigue. If you don’t have those, there pretty much is no story. And so it is for City of Jade.

This is a sad thing, because for people who like Tolkien replicants, Mithgar is a pretty cool world. McKiernan has written thirteen other novels, two anthologies, and one graphic novel set in the world of Mithgar, where elves, dwarves, humans, warrow (halflings), Pysks and trolls, goblins, and orcs all abide. McKiernan’s earlier work in the The Iron Tower trilogy or Hel’s Crucible duology is all any fan of epic fantasy could ask for. But City of Jade is about as exciting as reading the duller parts of the Silmarillion, and as a result will only appeal to Mithgar fans who already know and love the characters in it. McKiernan himself acknowledges that “moat of this story, City of Jade occurs between the ending of the novel Silver Wolf, Black Falcon and the beginning of the collection anthology Red Slippers: More Tales of Mithgar.” (From the afterword to City of Jade.)

The story has two plot lines. The first is about Aravan, the elf who loves the sea, and his travels around Mithgar with his lady love Aylis to reach his ship, the Eroean. The Elvenship then goes on trading missions, on one of which the City of Jade is discovered. This is on page 232 of a 349 page novel, so it takes quite a while before we are even introduced to the story from which the book takes its name. All the pages before that are concerned with Aravan meeting and greeting old friends from previous books, and engaging in one battle in the Nexus.

The other plot line follows Binkerton and Pipper, two warrows (i.e. halflings/hobbits) who are performers. The two of them travel from inn to inn performing their Fire and Iron act, until their gear is stolen and they are forced to steal for a living. This eventually leads them to Aravan and his sailing crew, and on to the discovery of the City of Jade.

All of this is tied together by a vendetta by a Black Mage (in Mithgar, mages are a separate race from humans, although they look the same) who wants to kill Aravan for being part of the killing of his god. These events had happened in earlier tales.

Add to the fact that City of Jade requires prior knowledge of Mithgar the way that McKiernan writes. He likes to write in such a way that the story has the feel of an old legend, reading more like a prose version of Beowulf than standard fantasy. This can be kind of cool when you get used to it. There are lots of “thy” and “thous”, words like “ere” that do not find themselves into our modern language, and grammatically, many subjects follow verbs, rather than our standardized way of doing the opposite. All this combines to give the story a grandiose feel of ancient legend, allowing McKiernan to do as Tolkien wished to do with his own works and provide an alternate, legendary history for mankind. This is either going to be something the reader loves or despises, and there is no grey area about it. I like it; I just wish the story had been more interesting.

The true story is really only short story to novella in length. It takes up only about the last fifty pages of the novel. All the rest is traveling filler. You have to really like the parts of Tolkien before the arrival at The Council of Elrond, more than what comes after to like City of Jade. The final culmination of the tale is rather prosaic, never really creating any level of excitement.

Mithgar fans will want to read this to fill in gaps in their knowledge of the world, and perhaps people who really love reading the Silmarillion (and I believe that to be a smaller number than people truly admit to) will like this novel. Otherwise, this is a bad place to enter Mithgar. Read the Hel’s Crucible duology, or The Dragonstone, or The Eye of the Hunter (my own first Mithgar book) to really get a feel for how much fun it can be to read McKiernan. City of Jade is an enjoyable writer at his worst, and I don’t recommend reading it for first time comers to Mithgar, and think only readers who see the caveats above as positives should read it at all.