I'm not very familiar with the epic fantasy genre, but I'm pretty sure few novels of that sort begin their tales in the American Midwest. To gaze at the cover of Stephen Zimmer's newest novel--the first book in his Fires in Eden series--it's deceptively conventional. But the story Zimmer has crafted seems to go for something other than your standard Dungeons & Dragons material. Particularly in the first hundred pages, as the cast of characters is introduced.
A Midwestern town is enveloped by a mysterious fogbank one night. A dozen or so of the townsfolk, clustered in smaller groups, outside wander through the mist and find themselves in a completely different world from their own. Upon their arrival in a world they come to know as Ave, they're first met by that Merlin looking fellow on the cover--The Wanderer--and are told they have been expected and danger lurks. They gradually familiarize themselves with this new world in spurts of awe-inspiring scenery and less than hospitable creatures, both sentient and not.
The nature of the humans' arrival in Ave isn't fully explained, but they are caught up in an impending war all the same, as an ominous figure known as the Unifier is sweeping over the land in order to conquer it for his master. And what little is left to stand in his way is in what's known as the Saxony and the Five Realms. And anyone that doesn't feel compelled to join the Unifier's every-growing army is set to be run down. And that includes the handful of strange humans now in Ave.
The book is nearly six hundred pages long, and it seems to need every page to cram the immense exercise of world building that Stephen Zimmer has undertaken here. The aspect of having modern day humans thrown into this world as an uninitiated reader's go-between is nice, but I just had a bit of trouble with the flow of the story. That's because the point of view periodically switches from character to character to character--a similar approach employed in Zimmer's other series, The Rising Dawn Saga--and I would have preferred something that hinged on a smaller cast. Maybe I'm just not conditioned to epic fantasies and the macroscopic universes featured in their pages.
The characters seem believable and act and react in rhythm with their own emotional baggage, and some arrived in Ave with their bags packed. The creatures in Ave range from familiar to entertainingly outlandish, with one of my personal favorites being the Darroks, which are basically dragons acting as zeppelins for the Unifier's army. The action is tight and moves with a brisk pace, but the slower moments seem to drag a bit, and I found myself skimming over passages to get back into the thrill ride. For the fans of epic fantasies, there is a slew of stuff to chew on, as the Crown of Vengeance sets the stage well for the rest of the Fires in Eden series.
Greenhorns like me may find it a bit intimidating, though. I guess it boils down to personal tastes and how adventurous you are in the reading department. Books like this are a trek outside my comfort zone, which is why I have yet to read a Lord of the Rings novel. Any time I pick up a book with more than five hundred pages, I'm already thinking that there's some fat to be trimmed in the narrative. So, I can't really criticize a fantasy novel for feeling a bit long-winded, when most of Zimmer's peers consider five hundred pages to be brief.
Ultimately, Crown of Vengeance wasn't my cup of tea, though I must commend Zimmer on his scope and ambition with not just this new Fires in Eden series, but his simultaneously running series, Rising Dawn, which started last year with The Exodus Gate. The man is nothing if not busy, and dedicated to his craft. I'm still not won over by the epic fantasy genre, but I see the talent there and am not giving up on it.
You can find other review for this title at: Only the Best SF/Fantasy