WITCH EMBER, by John Lawson
PublishAmerica, 2003, 18.95, 489pp
ISBN 1-59129-038-4

See also my review of Sorrow and The Raven

John Lawson lives in Silicon Valley and, perhaps because of the surfeit of technology around him, he has written a fantasy novel set in an entirely familiar fantasy world, with just a few twists to catch the eye of those who already know their dungeons from their dragons. There's even a traditionally Tolkien-esque map at the book's start for those who always like to know where they are in a new world.

Esmeree (or Easy as she's sometimes more appropriately known) is an orphan, growing up on the dangerous and uncaring streets of Cliffs Reach in the magic-poor lands of the Seven Kingdoms. Esmeree also possess a powerful 'ember', a piece of the Stone Of Power that was shattered when Man was still young. All humans carry a remnant of the stone; most have only a speck of it but some, like Esmeree, have a much larger piece and can become powerful sorcerers. If they survive the mean streets of Cliffs Reach, that is.

Most of Witch Ember follows Esmeree's growing pains as she graduates from scavenging on the streets at age four or five to her ascension into society and sorcery in young adulthood. It's a grim journey. Lawson, very much to his credit, doesn't hold back with the horrors of an orphan's life in an essentially medieval society (Harry Potter this isn't, although oddly enough at a fundamental level the plot of the two follow similar courses). He usually knows when to be graphic (which is fairly often: bones snap, blood flows, bruises swell…) and when to be a little coyer - such as when the young Esmeree and her friends pragmatically resort to prostitution, having no other choice to avoid starvation.

Although it is Esmeree's destiny to be a powerful sorcerer (powerful enough to conjure up a sequel, me wonders?), Lawson writes cleverly enough that this isn't immediately and obviously inevitable. Esmereee spends most of Witch Ember barely surviving, scraping by with the help, often unacknowledged, of her ember and other more sinister forces higher up the social ladder in Cliffs Reach. These remain hidden from the reader, as from Esmeree, despite an omniscient and unusual third-person narrative style that functions perfectly adequately within the story structure.

The path Esmeree's life follows never seems contrived, nor is information outside her purview forced 'helpfully' upon us. At the beginning of Witch Ember the narration of her world is entirely and short-sightedly physical, as you'd expect of a child (and, perhaps, of a new reader confronted with an unfamiliar world), but it grows wider - only as she grows and learns more about the world she lives in do such adult concerns as political structures, religion and wider basic geography become at all relevant both to her and the reader. Following a child's education in the ways of the world is an excellent way to avoid blatant infodumping - I didn't notice it being done! Congratulations are due to Mr Lawson on such a well thought out and executed development of the narrative.

A couple of small bugbears, though: first, the legend behind the embers granted to people, a trickster god who steals a Stone of Power and, frightened of the theft being discovered by those less trickily inclined of his superiors, grinds it up and hides the remains in the wet clay of Man so that, as mentioned before, everyone carries a piece. It's a nice metaphorical riff on creation myths that was completely spoilt for me by being taken entirely too literally. Sorcerers are detectable because they all have a piece of rock located somewhere under their skin that is the source of all their magical power.

Secondly, imagine if you will that throughout this review I inexplicably referred to collymongers and zvixl in place of, say, characters and plot. Such is the use of language in Witch Ember, particularly the uneven use of italicised supposedly foreign words that often look and sound very similar to their English equivalents but for some strange cts. It's a device that annoys rather than conveys the otherness of some Cliffs Reach inhabitants. For example, the awful (in a very good way, they're horrible!) rraakks come across as completely alien with no italicisation and spangly accented letters at all, just some bizarre speech patterns. It's a difficult trick conveying the unfamiliar in familiar words, and simply having every other character mispronounce basic, common words or replace perfectly good English ones in an otherwise English sentence with nonsense that needs looking up in the glossary doesn't help.

Am I being overly harsh? Perhaps, but over the course of nearly 500 pages these things begin to matter, and they stand out all the more when the author is otherwise largely able to hold his own in terms of description and story.

There isn't much to dislike about Witch Ember. There is also, conversely, not much to really like either - to get your teeth sunk into and refuse to let go until the hot blood of a great story runs down your chin. I don't mean that Witch Ember is a bad book - far from it - it's just that the booklust never quite descended upon me whilst I was reading it. Esmeree's surrounding world and the terrible forces are insufficiently glimpsed or coloured to gain a toehold in our imaginations, and the ultimate point of the book, Esmeree's eventual maturation into a powerful sorceress and her triumph against some vicious odds, seems rather flat by comparison to many of the earlier scenes.

Fortunately these problems are not major ones to overcome for a next book. Lawson can write on the small, personal scale very well - if only he can learn to tackle the wider, epic stage as well.

Oh, and the illustrations are uneven and even the better ones aren't particularly helpful. I think we can manage without them...

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk