Disclaimer: I won this in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway. Loves me the free books.
In her biography, Tracey Alley confesses her love of Dungeons & Dragons—and it shows. From beginning to end, Erich's Plea reads like a D&D adventure. And that's not a good thing.
I'm going to start by nitpicking the editing here. This book could have benefited from an editor (or if it had one, a better editor), both a copy-editor and a story editor. I am sure there is an adequate story somewhere inside this book, but it is buried beneath awkward, ungrammatical constructions and exposition-heavy dialogue.
Alley has trouble with both commas and semi-colons: not enough of the former, and oddly enough, she seems to use the latter correctly sometimes and randomly at other times. There are plenty of comma splices; then suddenly I will rejoice to see a semi-colon correctly joining together two independent clauses. It's like the clouds have parted and a beam of light is shining down from the heavens! Nevertheless, it's that first issue, the dearth of commas, that really hurts Erich's Plea. In fact, as someone who has historically tended to go the other way and overuse our tiny curly friends, reading this book has reminded me of their importance in joining phrases and subordinate clauses.
I don't talk about it very much in reviews, because it kind of goes without saying: punctuations is serious business. If I have to translate a book from English to English in order to read it, that will definitely detract from my enjoyment, even if the story beyond that grammatical obstacle is brilliant. Unfortunately, this is where Erich's Plea needs that second type of editor. As much as it needs a good line-by-line dissection by a trained wielder of the red pen, this book also needs a serious big-picture editor who knows how to tweak for success.
For example, at one point the main characters are trapped in a series of tunnels, and one of them unleashes a fireball that causes everything to catch on fire. Including several of his party trapped at ground zero. After they have been pulled from the flames, the narrator describes the situation thusly: "Despite the fact that the flames had lasted merely minutes Wulfstan, Trunk and Nikolai had all been severely burned." There's some questionable physics going on here. I myself have never been set on fire, but I have a feeling that if I were on fire for "merely minutes," there would be no "despite" about it.
And I don't want to be pedantic about this. It is obvious what Alley meant with that passage, but it just takes some editing to realize that the line should be changed to make more sense. These things tend to get away from a writer during the actual writing, and even during subsequent drafts. That is understandable, and that's what editors are for.
I get the feeling that Alley has the general narrative worked out, but she gets lost in conveying the mechanics and details of that narrative (don't we all?). This results in some sloppy and otherwise unappealing habits. Earlier in the book, as the characters are skulking around a level of the terrify Zeaburg Prison, they encounter some orcs. Alley feels the need to describe, in detail, the glacial thought processes of these thick prison guards, and throughout the battle, remind us that the orcs are slow-witted indeed. The icing on this cake of repetition occurs when the annoying halfing Lara decides to take on the guards single-handedly:
Thinking far more quickly than the slow-witted orc guards, Lara knew that the doorway would admit only one of them at a time. Orcs were not known for their slender physiques, that fact and the corridor itself presented her with plenty of opportunities to take out the guards.
I will acknowledge the welcome and proper use of a comma to offset that initial subordinate clause. This does not happen often enough. Note, however, the unfortunate comma splice in the second sentence. So on net balance, grammar points here are zero. But I digress. What I want to point out is the way in which this passage is written from Lara's perspective. Lara is "thinking," Lara "knows" that orcs are slow-witted. This is a classic case of telling when one should be showing—wait, on the next page, Alley does:
Two guards reached the doorway at the same time, their broad shoulders connecting as they each tried to get through the door first. The two orcs pushed and shoved at each other trying to get through the door, while grunting at each other in their native tongue.
So that first passage is completely unnecessary, because Alley conveys the same thing half a page later. And because here she is showing us, not telling us, what is happening, it makes for much better reading.
Incidentally, most of this book is centred around the escape from Zeaburg Prison. Apparently the governor of the prison had set up the escape so these prisoners could be assassinated; their deaths would just look like they had been killed trying to escape. That is actually rather clever. Unfortunately, this literal dungeon part of the Dungeons & Dragons motif is a drag. The characters spend the entire book escaping from the prison, travelling through an escape tunnel, and then they end up in the middle of the city controlled by the Big Bad (more on him in a moment). None of this is very interesting. Beyond the initial escape and that confrontation with the slow-witted orcs, these characters get into very little danger. There are some icky spiders, some ill-advised fire magic, and the problem of what to wear to the dark festival, of course. But these problems are smoke and mirrors that distract from a critical flaw, which is that this main plotline has no real plot.
Most of what happens in Erich's Plea is exposition. There are essentially three plots happening here: Slade et al escaping from Zeaburg, Michael's visits with Lord Nexus and Ulrich, and Ursula's escape from Ulrich's clutches. In the first part, as I mentioned, there are no real conflicts relevant to the overarching story and villain. It's all just prison escape and bickering between characters with stock attributes and relationships. Michael's story can be divided into two sets of dialogue: his conversation with Lord Nexus, which is just a history of Kaynos and some explanation of Alley's magical systems; and his confrontation with Ulrich and subsequent exile. Again, not much going on that really changes the status quo. Finally, we briefly meet Ursula. And again, her sole purpose is to tell us how Ulrich came to power and became such a naughty king. From golden ages to war and witchcraft, most of Erich's Plea is backstory.
Backstory is all well and good, and it is nice to see that Alley has put considerable thought into her fictional universe. The only missing component is that crucial binding element: the story to which the backstory is backstory. How can I tell? It is very simple: none of the antagonists actually do anything in this story. We hear about them. We hear what terrible things they have done and what terrible things they intend to do. Not so much on the doing.
The Big Bad of Erich's Plea, by the way, is called the Dark One.
No, I am not making that up. Yes, "the Dark One." At first I thought this was merely laughable. Seriously, what self-respecting storyteller names his or her villain "the Dark One"?
Turns out Robert Jordan does. Not being a Wheel of Time reader, this escaped my notice at first (thank you, TVTropes). Smugly, of course, this discovery is a good demonstration of why I eschew Wheel of Time, but that is neither here nor there. My point is that calling one's villain "the Dark One" does no one favours.
Nor does Alley's portrayal of this Dark One ameliorate his melodramatic title. Instead of remaining an enigma whom the protagonist only confronts during the climax, we meet the Dark One and learn that he is only human. To be fair, we learned quite early that the Dark One is a human, or rumoured to be human. But when we meet him, it seems like he is just human. He's not even that smart; at least, he doesn't notice that his right-hand man has betrayed him. And he has allied himself with a witch who seeks to rival the gods in her powers. I shall take one guess about the fate of that alliance.…
Unfortunately, we only meet the Dark One once, and not for long. So we know almost nothing about him, and after destroying his precious evil mystique and supervillain street cred, Alley frustratingly keeps him an abstraction as a character. So "the Dark One" is the "bad guy" because he hates non-humans. So it goes.
Speaking of abstractions, I couldn't help but notice that some of the characters aren't … always … there. By which I mean, sometimes it seems like Alley has forgotten that certain characters are with Slade's party; they just fade away and then rematerialize when they have a line to contribute. This happens in particular to Darzan and Trunk, who often drop away for tens of pages even when there is some action happening to which both could contribute (why does the halfling have to slay all the orcs?!). Yet another sign here that Erich's Plea needs an editor. In the case of someone like Darzan, it makes me wonder if she is all that necessary to the story; her role is mostly extraneous, so she could probably be cut. Considering Trunk's relation to a reveal at the end of the book, not to mention his role in Slade's vision, his lack of participation is a little more problematic but no less noticeable.
So I conclude by reiterating what is, perhaps, the most serious offense of Erich's Plea, which is its frustrating lack of story. The egregious grammar and poor editing wound me to my core, and they certainly do nothing to predispose me to the book. Nevertheless, they are meta-narrative problems, technical problems, and thus all the more easily corrected. Lacking a story is a huge problem. I know Alley has a story to tell, because her meticulous explanation of the political climate of Kaynos, the way its kingdoms and states and magic are set up, reveals to me the direction she wants to pursue with this series. I just wish she had gone much further along that path than she does, because as far as I am concerned, Erich's Plea is not Book One of the Withcraft Wars; it is Book Zero.