Friday, February 17, 2006

Book Review: Marked for Death by Matt Forbeck

January 2006, as a part of its growing line of Eberron themed novels, Wizards of the Coast released the second part of Matt Forbeck's The Lost Mark trilogy. The Road to Death is the sequel to 2005's Marked for Death and picks up where the action of the first novel left off. Fantasy is filled with book series and when the latest book in a series arrives there are usually multiple reviews of the newest offering. The same is true in this case. You can read a very thorough book of the month club discussion over at Essential Eberron. What is usually lacking are "reminder reviews" of the first book in a series. After all, readers who don't discover a series until the second book is released will have to decide if they desire to catch up.

Marked for Death is a shared universe media tie-in story by Matt Forbeck, a long-time veteran of the role-playing game industry. Marked for Death is a part of Wizards of the Coast's marketing efforts to promote their newest campaign setting for the Dungeons and Dragons game. Forbeck's novel takes place in the Eberron world, like the other novels in the line, but does not share any protagonists with the other books in the series.

The Eberron world is a fantasy environment in which combines elements of pulp and detective/noir fiction with traditional fantasy tropes. A nice, if reductive, analogy would be to say that Eberron is like a fantasy version of Earth just after the First World War, or the Last War as it is called on Eberron. The magic of the world is pretty much what one would expect in a Dungeons and Dragons based fantasy novel with two exceptions. First, in addition to its traditional role in fantasy, the magic of Eberron has also developed in a manner similar to that of technology in our world. Powerful magic is still limited to trained users, but architecture and technology incorporating minor magic effects are common. Second, some aristocratic bloodlines in the world have magical powers associated with their ancestry, the so called Dragonmarks. Most individuals who bear a Dragonmark are members of an aristocratic family associated with one of twelve well established Marks. There are currently twelve such Marks, the aristocratic status of which was determined long ago during war between Dragonmarked houses. It was during the War of the Mark that one of what were then thirteen Dragonmarks was destroyed, the aptly named Mark of Death.

It is with this background that Marked for Death begins. The story focuses on the friends and family of a man named Kandler, a veteran of the Last War. Kandler lives with his close friend, the semi-lycanthopic "Shifter"Burch, and his step daughter, an elf-child named Esprë. This small band lives in a community that borders what was once one of the great nations of the world, but which is now a land of dust and death having been destroyed in an almost nuclear cataclysm at the end of the Last War. Recently citizens of the town have been disappearing mysteriously, and Kandler's step-daughter has manifested a Dragonmark now that she has entered puberty. Things are very tense in the small border community, but things are about to get worse.

Two groups of strangers have, by different means, discovered that the Mark of Death has reappeared and have come to the border community in hopes of capturing the person bearing the Mark. One group desires to keep the Mark out of "evil hands" and the other desires to conquer Eberron.

From this point on, the novel becomes a pursuit/rescue narrative very similar to the Carson of Venus tales by Edgar Rice Burroughs, both for better and for worse. Esprë is captured, rescued, and recaptured no less than three times in Marked for Death which can lead the reader into some frustration. Forbeck is attempting to build the cast for the series while simultaneously maintaining a cliffhanger narrative. This is not an easy task and Forbeck does a yeoman's job of it. Forbeck's narrative style is crisp and easy to read and moves at a breakneck pace. The reader isn't left with much time to breathe. Surprisingly, Forbeck manages to insert a good amount of character development into the narrative and the reader leaves the book caring about the protagonists more at the end of the novel than at the beginning, but the character development is tied tightly to the romantic B storyline. By tying much of the character development to the romantic storyline, Forbeck underdevelops one of the more entertaining characters in the book, Burch. Readers might find Burch fun and exciting, but he is a friend we see but don't yet know.

Forbeck, like many writers in the Eberron series, has his repeated descriptive line. In Keith Baker's City of Towers, the overly repeated event was the protagonist being disarmed. In The Crimson Talisman, Adrian Cole seemed to call every weapon, long or short, a dirk. Forbeck's characters sure seem to spend a great deal of time with their head in their hands, often shaking the head at the same time. But this is really a small complaint.

A good deal of Marked for Death is devoted to establishing, and raising, the stakes for the future volumes in the trilogy. Forbeck does this every well and made this reader hopeful for the series, but slightly dissatisfied with the original. Like the Carson of Venus stories, Forbeck seems too focused on the A narrative and forgets that readers like to have some small resolution at the end of a story. I wanted at least a minor story arc resolved.

Aristotle says that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Marked for Death is merely a beginning, but it is a good beginning. If you read Marked for Death when it was released, the months spent waiting for the next volume were impatient months. The impatience I feel is sign that Forbeck effectively set the stakes for the reader. But if you're anything like me and find waiting even one week for the continuation of a narrative too long, you might want to wait until the series is finished to start reading them.

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