Trimesqua, King of Yaskatha, is murdered by Emhathyn, an ancient wizard who raises the dead to kill everyone in the palace. The young Prince D’zan manages to escape, helped by his faithful bodyguard Olthacus the Stone, and sets out on a quest for vengeance. To retake Yaskatha, he seeks the help of other rulers, including the two princes of Uurz: the strong warrior Vireon and the scholar/writer Lyrilan.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, King Vod rules the city of New Udurum where Giants and Men live peacefully together. Vod was born a Giant but became human to marry Shaira, Princess of Shar Dni. Their children are a new breed: Princes Tadarus and Vireon have the shape of humans but the strength of Giants. Prince Fangodrel, on the other hand, is pale of skin, addicted to the bloodflower drug, and lacking the strength of his brothers. Princess Sharadza rounds out the set of royal children, a young girl with a taste for ancient stories, especially the ones told by the mysterious Storyteller who simply goes by the name of Fellow. When King Vod leaves his court to atone for an ancient misdeed, he leaves the queen in charge of New Udurum, which angers Prince Fangodrel, his oldest son who was expecting to become the next ruler…
In Seven Princes, John R. Fultz has created a complex fantasy world with a wide variety of settings. His cast of characters is larger than the brief synopsis above indicates. The history of his fantasy world is deep and includes now-legendary events as well as more recent conflicts that play important roles in shaping the current story. As far as world-building goes, Seven Princes has a lot to offer.
Unfortunately the novel didn’t work for me because of two significant problems: forgettable characters, and prose that’s too flowery. Any attempt to enjoy this novel’s somewhat recognizable but still impressive fantasy world is bound to run head-first into the wall of weak characters and overwritten sentences that caused me to give up on this debut after about 300 of its almost 500 pages.
The characters lack both originality and depth. They’re too recognizable and too flat to really connect with the reader. At first I thought Seven Princes was a charming throwback to the old days of pulp fantasy, full of over the top heroes, high drama, and spectacular battles — the kind of book that seems made for a cover in the style of Boris Vallejo, maybe one showing a voluptuous beauty in a chain mail bikini who is fighting a fire-breathing dragon, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger clone wielding a six foot sword. After the first handful of chapters I thought that the entire thing might be an ironic wink to that type of fantasy, a reference to the days when you’d expect every male protagonist to be a muscular hero and every female character to be swooning eye candy. After all, you don’t really expect deep characterization in that type of novel. The Princes Tadarus and Vireon truly read as if they stepped out of a Frank Frazetta painting. Aside from the plucky Sharadza and her mother, most females fall in the “wench” category and are often seen being bedded (or on one memorable occasion, raped to death) by one of the Princes. On the evil side, Emhathyn and the shape-changing Ianthe are just shy of becoming caricatures.
Even once I realized that there’s actually no irony here, I still tried to enjoy the novel’s several plot lines. From D’zan’s basic quest for vengeance to the fate of the Giant race and Fangodrel’s questionable provenance, there’s enough happening to keep your interest, even if none of it is particularly original. The novel hops from plot to plot at a solid clip, leaving just enough time to advance the separate stories before moving on. Combined with its interesting world-building, this novel could have worked as a straightforward, light but entertaining adventure fantasy in the vein of Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations.
Unfortunately Seven Princes is so full of incredibly overwritten descriptions that you can skim paragraphs, even entire pages, without missing a thing. Clothing and weaponry are described in tiresome detail and unfortunately often still feel like props in a fantasy B-movie. Fultz devotes a full page to the description of a garden, or a couple of pages to show the sights when two Princes walk from that garden to somewhere else, all of it so opulent it quickly becomes numbing. One particularly annoying section features pages full of faux mysticism that are so spun out that it would have been much better to just sum it all up in a few words. Too often, reading this book feels like wading through a thick, gunky soup of overwrought descriptions to get to the small bits of dialogue or plot that actually advance the narrative.
Likewise, many of the dialogues are drawn out as far as they could possibly stretch and, what’s worse, often sprinkled with lines that are impossible to take seriously. When the long-expected confrontation between two brothers is finally about to happen, one of them exclaims “Let us spill familial blood if we must.” Elsewhere, you’ll read things like “We Princes are a tough breed.” This type of cringe-inducing prose is all too common and ruins any enjoyment you could derive from the story. I can only read lines like “Their fear was perfume to him” so many times before getting annoyed. Too much of this novel reads like a parody of bad pulp fantasy or a painfully overwritten tie-in to a fantasy-themed video game.
I always find it difficult to write a completely negative review of a debut. After all, it’s hard enough to get a book published. Authors pour every ounce of their blood, sweat and tears into that first novel. It’s of incredible importance, both personally and career-wise. I often seek out debut novels for review because I like nothing more than giving a new author a little push. In this crowded genre, even the most talented newcomers can use some help getting that all-important first book out in front of as many people as possible.
Still, it’s a reviewer’s job to give as honest an opinion as possible about each book, and, in the case of Seven Princes, I simply can’t recommend it. I enjoyed the world-building, and as this io9 writeup (much more positive than my review, but somewhat spoiler-filled) mentions, the novel throws a lot of fun, crazy fantasy concepts at the reader. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel as if John R. Fultz spent more time and effort on writing settings to wow new fantasy readers with lavish visuals, in the process filling the book with prose of a distinctly purplish hue, and not enough time and effort on creating interesting characters. I rarely give up on a novel, but in the case of Seven Princes, I simply felt no motivation to keep reading.
Further reading: well, it looks like Paul Goat Allen liked it just a teensie bit more than I did. Different strokes, I guess. You can also check the novel’s reviews on GoodReads, where the book has an average score of 2.3 out of 5 with more than half the readers giving it one or two stars out of five at the time I’m writing this addendum to my review. (Feb. 18th, 2012)