The Fifth Sorceress, a review

Consider this plot line: there's a powerful, arrogant, bitchy woman. She enjoys tormenting and toying with men sexually for no particular reason, and doing various other things that the author characterizes as bad. Then after awhile, a big strong man comes along and kills her. This plot has been around for ages in SF/Fantasy, and in porn as well, for the obvious reason that it appeals strongly to a certain class of pathetic teenage boys, while irritating everybody else. Fortunately, in recent decades, it's fallen out of favor for all but the most pitiful authors. So you might think that in our enlightened new millennium, surely nobody would be so dumb as to pound out a seven hundred page long extravaganza dedicated to such a subject.

But you would be wrong. The book is question is called The Fifth Sorceress, by a first-time author named Robert Newcomb. And all I can say is that clearly needs psychiatric help to recover from some sort of childhood trauma that left him with a deep-seated fear of anyone with two X chromosomes. His entire plot, if you wish to extend that word's definition so far as to cover the semicoherent rambling in this book, consists entirely of a quartet of evil sorceresses who are bent on (you'll never guess) world domination, and of the standard-issue fantasy hero who single-handedly mows down them and all of their minions. Like most mideival women, these ones wear skin-tight black leather and thigh-high boots and carry riding crops, and spend all of their spare time sexually torturing midgets just for kicks. Among the very few women on the side of good, the author takes pains to portray them all as brainless and submissive, and they are treated like shit by the men.

But what really makes this the most grating literary experience of all time is the way that the author repeatedly emphasizes how in his world, female sexuality is irrevocably tied to evil. In fact, he has his good guy male characters lecture each other repeatedly on the fact that the four bad sorceresses have sexual desires at all is a symptom of their inherent badness, and he hammers the point home by using the words "sexual", "sensual" , and "lustful" to describe more or less everything that they do. For instance:

"And then, surprisingly, the acute unfulfilled desires had come. One day, while struggling to understand one of the more arcane passages of the Vagaries, she and the others had all felt the unexpected stirrings of their loins. The hugely sexual, needful longings had been intensified by an insanely irresistible desire to inflict those same sexual needs upon others.

Of both genders."

Note that by isolating that last prepositional phrase in its own little paragraph, he implies that the very idea of homosexual feelings must be so shocking and disgusting that it should cause any reader to react with hatred and revulsion towards these characters. Of course, fantasy authors who hold archaic attitudes towards sexuality are hardly a new phenomenon, but I think that this book constitutes the worst case that I've ever seen. Now given the fact that scribbling down his juvenile revenge fantasies against all women was clearly Newcomb's only goal in writing this stinker, actually bothering to dissect the entire book might seem like a waste of time.

But it might be fun, so I'm going to do it anyway, starting with the plot. We have a good guy prince who's known right from the start to be "the Chosen One" described in "the Prophecies" . (Yes, those are the actual terms that Newcomb uses.) There's a wise old bearded wizard mentor. In walk the four bad sorceresses along with an army of minions. (The minions, by the way, are called "The Minions". One wonders whether the author even knows that it's a derogatory term.) They fight once, and the bad guys win and kill the hero's father. The hero vows vengeance, they fight again, the hero kills all the bad guys, the end. That's it. Of course, neither the glacial pacing nor the formulaic storytelling is a first for the fantasy genre, but again it's worse here than I've ever seen before. Even mediocrities such as Robert Jordan try to create tension by adding some groups of characters who lie in the gray area between good and evil, and by dropping some hints that some of the good guys may not be trustworthy. But in his seven hundred page opus, Mr. Newcomb apparently couldn't find any space to do either, resulting in one of the most tedious reads ever. As for why the book moves so slowly, I can think of several explanations. Might it have something to do with the author's need to describe every damn person, set of clothing, weapon, piece of armor, house, room, tree, and item of furniture in excruciating detail? Might it be related to the fact that no character can utter as much as a single line of dialogue without having to first give it several paragraphs of unspoken, but unfortunately not unwritten, consideration? Might it occur because the characters for some reason feel the need to carefully explain their plans and opinions to others time after time after time, regardless of how blatantly obvious they are?

Anyway, Newcomb spends a great deal of time on character development. For instance rather than making Prince Tristan your ordinary everyday hero, Newcomb makes him a reluctant hero. And he wants you to know it, to. As a matter of fact, the first hundred pages consist of nothing but Tristan repeating over and over the fact that he doesn't want to be a king and a powerful wizard. After that, we switch to having his mentor Wigg (Wigg?) explaining to someone else that Tristan is reluctant. After that, we switch to having a third character explaining exactly the same thing. In all this time, Newcomb never bothers explaining why Tristan is so reluctant. He just kind of is, you know. Tristan's only other noticable trait is a willingness to crawl into bed with anything that moves. Newcomb ceaselessly reminds us that he's slept with practically every young woman in the kingdom (sample line of dialogue: "You are handsome and strong, and I know in my heart that you will not hurt me.") and and that he throws them out of his bedroom and doesn't even speak to them afterwards. The fact that any self-respecting woman would view this guy as a major league jackass seems to have eluded Newcomb entirely.

It almost goes without saying that Wigg (sorry, I still can't get over the stupidity of that name) and all of the other characters are drones with no personality at all. I do feel the need to mention one curious quality about the good guys' behavior: they lose their tempers very easily. In fact, just about every time one of them tries to explain their plans for dealing with the bad girls, one of the others misunderstands and responds by threatening to kill the speaker. At one point I counted twenty-six death threats in under ten pages. This and other qualities made me loathe the hero so thoroughly that I was almost praying that Newcomb would take a page from a more talented fantasy author and chop the guy's head off half way through the book. No such luck however.

Now there are two schools of thought with regards to fantasy villains. Some authors spend time make their antagonists into multi-dimensional, well-developed characters. Others leave them as just being simple forces of evil. It's an unwritten rule that if you choose the second track, then you don't waste time showing off your villains; they're evil and that's all the reader needs to know. Tolkien didn't spend time on Sauron, Donaldson didn't spend time on Lord Foul, Eddings didn't waste space on any of his villains. Unfortunately, no one informed Mr. Newcomb of this rule. He spends close to half the book focusing on the four sorceresses (actually, just on one of the sorceresses, while the other three are mainly ignored). This one, named Succiu (Succiu?), is evil because she enjoys it when other people suffer. Now Mr. Newcomb doesn't display this through her thoughts or her actions, he merely has his omniscient narrator inform us of it time after time. For example, "She enjoyed seeing the poverty and the desperation, enjoyed anonymously witnessing the occasional rape or murder." After fifty straight pages of this, it starts to become slightly annoying. Of course, Newcomb provides them with a long laundry list of sins. They murder! They rape! They steal! They commit genocide! They practice slavery! They insult people! They impose high taxes! They have poor fashion sense! They sneer! They jaywalk! (Okay, I made that last one up.) It's almost as if the author is consciously aware that his writing lacks the quality to make frightening villains, and he's trying to make up for it in quantity. I might have been slightly more forgiving of his misoginy if he had made at least some effort to develop the characters. However, my turning them into D&D style villains who are about as intimidating as the Pillsbury Doughboy, he gave up his last chance at redemption.

But what truly stands out about The Fifth Sorceress is the writing. He includes too many "to be" verbs, he employs simple sentences almost exclusively, and he overuses the trick of inserting one-sentence paragraphs. All of these indicate a generally immature level of writing skills, but they certainly aren't unique to this one book. No, the writing in The Fifth Sorceress stands below all of these. Think Plan 9 from Outer Space bad. Think The Eye of Argon bad. Think writing so totally incompetent that no middle school teacher would ever accept it.

Bad naming choices

There's a docile, submissive housewife named Morganna. (Would somebody please hit the guy with a hardcover copy of The Mists of Avalon?)

Zabarra. (Zabarra?)

Shannon the Small. (What's really weird is that this character is male.)

Traax. (Traax? To me it sounds like a brand of snow tires.)

Newcomb needs to learns English.

A "brunette" has "jet black" hair. A blade gets described as "spherical" . Another character bears the unfortunate name "Michael the Meager" . (Michael the Meager?) A character "smiled ruefully". I assume that this author used the MS Word spellchecker as his editor.

The cliché parade.

This may be the biggest flaw in the writing. Newcomb employs uninspired stock phrasings so frequently that the situation has already become laughable by the time the prologue is over. But what's particularly agravating is that he clearly throws them in without any thought at all. For example, every woman that Tristan sees is "the most beautiful woman he had ever seen", and every room or landscape that he observes is "the most beautiful thing he had ever seen". Besides the obvious contradiction of using such phrases multiple times, there's also the problem that they don't communicate to the reader any idea of what the author is visualizing. On another occasion, Tristan "silently vowed to get some answers, or die trying". Yet the subject immediately gets changed and Tristan doesn't care at all. Silent vows just ain't what they used to be.

Thesaurus abuse.

Anyone who's read The Eye of Argon will know what I'm talking about. The writing sits largely at an elementary school level, but every so often a more sophisticated word pops up, frequently in the chacters' conversation. How many people do you know who say "expertise" or "incantation" on a regular basis? What I find particularly hilarious is that the novel was marketed with emphasis on the fact that it was an adult fantasy, yet everyone says "excrement" rather than "shit" .

Fight scenes.

The author is apparently under the impression that every time a sword makes contact with human skin, head and limbs go flying off, intestines spill out, and fountains of blood soak everything in a ten foot radius. The scene where the bad guys attack Tristan's corronation ceremony stands as the most unintentionally hilarious thing I've ever read. I have to agree with the critic who said that the material would have been outstanding if only Monty Python was writing it.

More bitterly could I expostulate, but this page has already grown rather long as it is. But before I close, I can't resist mentioning that in addition to desecrating his seven hundred pages of text, Newcomb even messed up the little map at the front of the book. North and south are up and down, as usual, but east and west have been reversed. If he couldn't find a decent editor, couldn't he at least locate a third grader who for a few bucks would have been willing to check for mistakes like that?