Elliott, Kate. 1999. The Burning Stone. New York: DAW.

Reviewed 02 June 1999

The Burning Stone (cover) I had to do it, finally. I had to review a middle book in an IFS (Interminable Fantasy Series). At least I got to choose which one.

The best feature of Elliott's Crown of Stars series is the worldmaking. Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the narrative choices stand up to the admirable effort put into creating the environment, and the plot meanders to no apparent purpose.

The environment is a pleasant departure from the common quasi-Celtic/Renaissance fantasy novels that fill shelves (and cause back problems for bookstore clerks as each is replaced in 60 days with another clone). Elliott (Alis Rasmussen) has created a solid 9th or 10th century culture based in the Holy Roman Empire, with a few specific twists. The world-building is almost science fictional in approach—which is intended as praise. The author has carefully mapped out the range of character types, religion and its consequences, magic and its consequences, and (most importantly) internally consistent technology.

The major difficulty is that it has taken over 2,000 pages (!) to get only 3/4 of the way through the plot. Even Peake's Gormenghast books, with their truly devious Macchiavellian plots, pale in comparison. To put it in perspective: Although Crown of Stars includes fewer viewpoint characters and far less time or territory, it is already longer than Eddings' oft-maligned (and unjustly so, for the original five books) Belgariad, and one hell of a lot less has happened.

Ultimately, though, the problems with Crown of Stars in general, and specifically with The Burning Stone, stem from some serious errors in choice of viewpoint. The series is told from several different third-person limited-omniscient viewpoints. The first book, King's Dragon, established a certain not-unpleasant rhthym to changes in viewpoint, and kept those changes close to a minimum. The second book, Prince of Dogs, broke the rhythm, and The Burning Stone descends to near chaos. It is almost as if Elliott is trying to display some kind of simultaneity with the rapid shifts in viewpoint (which, because the viewpoint characters seldom meet, often span half a continent). If that sounds a lot like USC Film School technique, I'm afraid that may be correct. Whatever it is, it makes one very disinterested in following the twists in the plot.

And what a lot of plot twists there are for such a limited plotline! For example, Liath's romance with Sanglant gets soap-opera-length treatment, despite its mistaken prominence. We simply don't need to see a lot of the tiny events. Ironically, these books would have benefitted from a more cinematic point of view—a lot less time spent inside characters' heads, and a lot less explanation.

The Burning Stone is an object lesson in why the "show don't tell" school is often wrong. Elliott seldom misses a chance to show us anything, from a character's (repeated) shame at bodily functions to details of household management. Where the novel fails is in making choices of what to show. If it is not essential for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion from a scene, a character, a bit of dialogue, it should not be shown. That is the gift of the narrative art—the choice of what is significant. Different choices make different stories. Trying to tell the "whole story" is a choice in itself—usually a poor one. Why should I trust a narrative voice that concentrates on minutiae? (I know, that seems very odd coming from a lawyer.)

This is not a plea for "less to keep track of," by any means. Neither is it a reaction to books so thick that the spine breaks with even a light hand. It is a plea for editorial attention. Had an editor demanded a 60% reduction in length, preferably by cutting out extraneous matter, the book would have been far superior. Tolkien provides an object lesson: All of the extra material published after the four core novels (The Hobbit and LOTR) is merely background for those four core novels. The core novels are vastly superior to the later books (such as The Silmarillion) precisely because the extra material is suggested by the core novels, not incorporated into them.

What I find most irritating, though, is the recognition that Crown of Stars is vastly superior to most IFS published since the late 1980s. It could have been so much more by being less, and yet is still superior to even the best of its competitors.

Overall rating: 3 stars
The actual writing, at the lowest level of abstraction, isn't bad at all. The world-creation is first-rate, and deserves some study. However, the lack of firm editorial control has allowed a lot of cellulite into this series, and perhaps even some retained water.

A Powell's Books Partner
  • You can buy this book on-line through Powell's Books. At this writing, it's available as a hardback. The two predecessors in the series, King's Dragon and Prince of Dogs, are available as mass-market paperbacks.
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