Review: The War of the Ember

The War of the Ember
The War of the Ember by Kathryn Lasky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed the Guardians series. While they’re surprisingly violent for books targeted at children, I still think of them as a good, easy read and do recommend them. The first few books especially were marvelous, though I must admit my favourite part of the entire series are the three books written about Hoole and Grank (honestly I think that those three books would have been better suited to the film adaptation than the ones actually chosen, though there were problems with the film that stretched far beyond the choice of material or adaptation decay that I won’t get into here). Actually writing out the legends instead of relating them piecemeal via exposition or dialogue was an excellent idea on Lasky’s part, especially considering what came after them in the series. However, I felt that it was after To Be A King that the series really lost its momentum, and it ultimately lets this final installment down.

Most of the book is quite good. The whole lead-up is engaging and interesting, and the tension builds quite nicely. And then the battle begins. When I realised how few pages were actually left in the book by that point (knowing that a good portion of the end pages would be taken up by a glossary of characters), I did wonder to myself how the climactic confrontation of this fifteen book series could play out in such a small space with the kind of tension and action that it deserved. Previous installments featured some engaging, suspenseful and well-handled battles between the Guardians and the Pure Ones, and with the entirety of this book being one huge lead-up to the final battle of the series, I was expecting something suitably epic — the battle to end all battles as it were. I don’t feel this was an unfair presumption. The massing of the Guardians’ forces and the numbers of the enemy — a horrifying last-minute revelation — implied that this was supposed to be the most serious confrontation in the series. I was sadly a little disappointed.

 

For the titular war and conclusion of the series, I admit I was expecting something a little more like the other battles early in the series, which I felt were far more compelling and better written than this one. Which was a right shame, since it can be quite easily inferred from the lead-up to the final battle that the War of the Ember was intended to be seen as being more dire and more important than the one at the end of the Hoolian legends, which was much better written. The impression I had by this point was that perhaps the author had become burned out or the story had been drawn out far too long.

I have read that the author originally didn’t intend to write this many books, and I feel like it really showed in this last entry. The Golden Tree and Exile in particular seemed like rehashes of the same core concept with different approaches (cult/superstition/religious ceremony and indoctrination is bad — not that I necessarily agree or disagree, but it felt quite heavy-handed in those two books). While I don’t think that these two books in particular were poorly written or boring (in fact, I found Exile morbidly compelling, especially when the fanatical book burning reaches its obvious next step), it did feel like the core spirit of the series had been on a downward spiral once we return to Soren and Coryn after the Hoolian legends.

The build up is, perhaps ironically, what lets this book down the most. The Pure Ones and the Dragon Owls have gathered an immense force. They’re hatching an army of hagsfiends, evil demon owls who were driven from the world when Hoole became king. The good guys have the puffins gaining some ambition, the polar bears and wolves joining up, and all sorts of birdy riff-raff coming to help who were otherwise derided or disliked by the owls for the entire series, like seagulls, crows and kraals (owl pirates). It’s all building up to be a huge, epic battle between good and evil. Reader expectations are raised, and when the actual fighting starts, I guess my expectations had a little too far to fall.

 

One of the more disappointing things for me personally was the absence of hagsfiends in the final battle. Largely this was because of the way the force of hagsfiends being bred by the villains was dealt with in the narrative. I must admit I wasn’t sure what to make of the sudden idea that the baby hagfiends would be ready to fight within hours of their hatching. It felt like a contrivance intended solely to create tension in the context of Namara’s mission. Reading the book, I can see what was being aimed at — the uncertainty of whether or not Namara actually succeeded in destroying the hagsfiend eggs is played upon. The scene of Namara’s battle was omitted from the narrative with no further clues given during the story. However, the suspense and tension I imagine this was supposed to generate in theory just didn’t work in practice when it came down to the final battle itself. The Pure Ones came across as nonthreatening and impotent, and I kept expecting hagfiends, even a handful of them, to show up so that the tension and stakes could be ratcheted up to the point where it would feel like the Guardians would be at greater risk. When the good guys have polar bears, wolves and numerous other birds including martial-arts owls and coal-throwing colliers, even if the Pure Ones technically outnumbered them it failed to feel like a high-tension battle and more like an unfair fight tilted in the Guardians’ favour.

We are led to believe just before the battle that the Pure Ones severely outnumber the Guardians by about two-to-one or so, which makes the presence of the Guardians’ allies even more important to their victory. But when the battle actually starts, perhaps because of the confusing way it is written, it really comes across that the Pure Ones have no real advantage at all. This is a real contrast to previous, earlier battles in the series which had great tension and pacing. Even the strategy felt a bit contrived; wedging an enemy force that can fly perfectly well into a corridor to be assaulted by polar bears was a little hard to wrap my head around (I have a theory about where this came from, which I will get to shortly). Nonetheless I was willing to suspend a bit of disbelief here and convinced myself that they were being driven down. Which they probably were, and this is of course what I mean by the description of the battle being confusing: some of the time I didn’t have much idea as to what was going on.

 

Which leads me to my real, big gripe. It’s quite probable that I would have just read the book and shrugged a little at the shortcomings that I noticed during the climax (as I tend to do when I’m thoroughly engrossed in a book). However, something took place early in the battle that jarred me straight out of the story. I laughed. I was probably not supposed to laugh. This is the serious part of the book where everything comes to a violent head. And after reading this part, I found it very difficult to get back into the story.

When it is first suggested by the characters that they use a place called the Hot Gates in the Beyond as the centrepiece in their strategy, I had a flashback to the film 300. No big issue really, since it’s a rather ordinary and logical strategy when you have the advantage of that kind of geography. But then, during the battle, Nyra calls for a parley and says this to Soren and Coryn while trying to convince them to surrender and give up the Ember:

“By noon tomorrow your flame squadron, your Strix Struma Strikers, your Frost Beaks will be finished because our hagsfiends will blot out the sun and you will die.”
“Then we shall fight you in the shade!” Coryn replied.
“Be sensible. Lay down your weapons.” The Striga stepped forward on the perch.
“Come and get them,” Coryn said in a deadly voice that range out. A wild cheer went up from the colliers of the Sacred Ring.

I stopped reading here for a moment. I did laugh, and at first I thought it was cute, and then I re-read it and my assessment of ‘cute’ turned to awkward. The middle of the climactic battle of the series was probably not the best place to put something like this. It’s made worse by a confusing piece of dialogue that takes place shortly after where the wolf Namara captures a traitor. Namara tells them that the Pure Ones have been shown ‘an old caribou trail’ and they’re coming in from the rear.

It was painfully obvious that this section of the battle is some kind of odd homage to 300/The 300 Spartans, which makes an awkward kind of sense when one considers the coincidence that Zack Snyder directed both that film and the adaptation of the Guardians series. If you’ve seen the film 300 more than once, the references here are numerous and laid on thick. It turns the whole section from a serious battle into an uncomfortable, jarring Narm moment. It doesn’t work in the way it’s been used. It’s completely distracting and left me feeling awkward and weird about the whole scene. In a way, I feel like it really ruined the climax with its shamelessness by disrupting the momentum of the action.

 

One of the other things that bugged me more after the fact was this.
The death of a major character during the climax of the book felt like it was tacked in there purely to amp up the drama. While in terms of the narrative and the conclusion to the series it was an obvious choice to end that character’s role in the story, the brevity of its handling made the whole scenario seem completely arbitrary. It didn’t help at all that this happened at the end of what was a somewhat awkwardly-written climax between the main heroes and the main villains. Visually I’m sure it would have looked spectacular, but the whole thing read very strangely off the page. Initially the climax of the battle was great once it got underway. And then it stopped dead in its tracks, so during the pivotal scene that takes place in the caldera it was hard to visualise some of the action. Once the writing picks up again, suddenly an important character is dying. And then dead. The disappointing part is that it feels glossed over and hardly mourned, which is perhaps why it felt that the death was arbitrary.

 

So ends the series, and though I’ve waxed at length on why I was so disappointed with the ending, bear in mind that this is all in the last 30-or-so pages of the story. The rest of the series is quite good; I wouldn’t have spent my time reading 15 books about the characters and world if I didn’t enjoy it (I’ll drop a book in the first few pages if it bores me, after all). However, endings are important, and as the ending to such a long series, I naturally felt let-down that the conclusion to this book wasn’t as grand as I was expecting. Others may think differently, and as I did really enjoy the other 14-and-a-half books in this series (and am currently enjoying The Lost Tales of Ga’Hoole) I still recommend giving it a read, even if you only read as far as book 6 (which you can, I think, stop at and still have a well-rounded story) or even read up to To Be a King, since I feel that the legend of Hoole is well worth a read too.

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