Once again, the passionless, dry, and obviously unfamiliar-with-the-story narration comes out of Ax Norman!
The Dragonlance series is one of the best in fantasy - in my opinion, some of the best ever written. All it takes to suck the life out of it is narration like this.
I bought the first two books of "Legends" from Audible before I knew what I was in for. I think, for "Test of Twins" I will either just go read the hard-copy I already have (though I switched to audiobooks because I can "read" on my long commutes and/or when my eyes are worn out from staring at a computer screen all day), or I will wait until Audible hires someone with the real ability to narrate before I pick up the third book in audio format.
Very disappointing since these books are SO good, otherwise.
I have followed this story from the Nantucket series forward, and I have loved nearly every minute of it. However, I must admit my dwindling enthusiasm since "Tears of the Sun," and my particular disappointment with this book. It actually pains me to give such a low rating to a story that I have been so in love with, but there does come a time when an author needs to call done, done, and avoid diminishing returns.
This has been the high point throughout all of the series: Todd McLaren has performed every book, which is a rare thing to find in a series with so many books - you almost always get at least one or two others to come in and, in my opinion, generally "upset the apple cart." Say what you will about some of the mispronunciations of words and places, but as a Scot myself, and one used to hearing the Gaelic, I can can tell you that even "native" speakers massacre a word here and there! But, he has been absolutely consistent in his vocal representations of every character, such that you don't need the "said Rudi," or "said Juniper," to alert you to whomever it is speaking. Not exactly an easy feat, what with a year or more between recordings! Hats off to Mr. McLaren.
"The Given Sacrifice:"
That said, I rate this book lowest of low in the series for a number of reasons. First, it is my opinion that "Tears of the Sun," Lord of Mountains," and "The Given Sacrifice" should all have been ONE book. In fact, all of them seem only designed to set the stage for the NEXT series, detailing the story of Generation III of 'The Change.' There is a sense of rushing and being incomplete in each of these last three books. We are introduced to characters, or are walking alongside characters we've known from the start, then suddenly there's a, "aaaaand...they're not important anymore, so moving on..." and "poof" - where did they go?
In this final iteration (thus far) we, in fact, get time warped from cradle to adulthood with those who will take center stage in the next part of the series, suddenly hearing about the deaths of characters we have know and loved (or loved to hate), or characters of the same esteem who have been shunted off north somewhere, or driven so far into the background that we know they will be cameos or less than cameos from here onward.
Here's the thing: we GREW UP with Rudi, with Mathilda, with Mary and Ritvah and the rest; we "knew" them from childhood to the crowing of the King and foundation of Montival. As such, we shared every triumph, every grief, and all the wonder that the characters did - we were invested in them.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of this book, however much we have been prepared for Rudi's death, his daughter, her friends, and a good many others ride into the final battle, unblooded and nervous, but...who cares? We don't know them; have no investment in them; and to be honest, as we see only strangers taking the guise of people we have known and loved, there is an absolute feeling of let-down. Not simply because a beloved character has died, but because, once again, we get a sense of, "so THAT happened...aaaand moving on - forget all of those folks; here's the new folks - ta-da!"
Sorry, and I do submit that this is only one man's opinion, but things should have been wrapped up long before, and left with the gold old fashion "let the reader finish the future," for good or ill.
There simply is a time to say "when," and call something great good enough.
Love your writing Mr. Stirling, but with this one - nay, with "The High King of Montival," I'd say - enough was enough.
In an earlier review of the first two books of the series, I mentioned that I would, indeed, NOT purchase the third installment of the audiobook versions of Legends, simply because of the narrator. I folded, due to the fact that my commute is long, I have been listening from Chronicles onward during the drive, and I am addicted to the story - might as well finish the whole thing out. That said, the narration may, in fact, be more the cause of my elevated blood pressure and "road rage" than the actual traffic...more on that momentarily.
Overview - The Audiobook:
This is, in my opinion, a great ending to the story. I will not expound much here (to avoid spoilers for those who have yet to listen/read the book), other than to say that, once again, Weis and Hickman masterfully draw everything to a conclusion, not only ending the tale on a poignant and well-crafted note that follows from everything that came before (it is often the case, in my experience, that some conclusions forget their origins, particularly when, at least at the time they are written, the author(s) feel(s) it will be the last "word" on the matter (the authors, in the "Annotated Legends" admit they thought this would be the last book written about Krynn and the characters we have come to love), and he or she (or they, in this case) is/are trying to wrap everything up, although "possibilities" may still be rolling around in the mind; the question of how to end it all, and timing for ending, publishing, and so on (and this book was written in less than a month, according to Weis) has the pressure on), but, even with a firm conclusion, also leaves the reader with enough "unanswered" about the characters and the world, that the reader can "develop" their own future of Krynn and what happens after (if one stops here, of course - as mentioned, no other books had been planned at this point). Anyway, a great way to wrap things up.
Overview - The Series, Chronicles through Legends:
As I have stated in earlier reviews, the original, 6-book story is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best in fantasy. Many would put Tolkien at the top of the Fantasy Genre ladder, perhaps making room for C.S. Lewis to join him (they did, after all, meet for tea to discuss ideas in a little public house just beyond the Oxford campus) and, it is true, most of what we now consider fantasy was born from the works of Tolkien (and/or Lewis) - something admitted frequently by Gary Gygax and several of the other creators/early minds of TSR (writers/creators of Dungeons and Dragons/ AD&D - from whence, of course, came the overarching framework of the Dragonlance world) - but I would put the team of Weis and Hickman not only "up there" with these greats in their abilities to weave a tale, but perhaps even exceeding their forebears in their joint ability to make the reader identify with their characters.
Indeed, we all came to love Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, Frodo, Sam, and so on, but we never really KNEW any of them. In the Dragonlance series, we not only come to love, hate (or love to hate/hate to love) the characters - nearly all of them, in fact, if not indeed all - but to KNOW them: know their hopes, fears, feelings, darkness, light, strengths, failings, and so on; in short, their overall humanity (howevermuch the elves, dwarves, kender, and other races of Krynn might be offended by that statement!). Weis and Hickman have created a world and the characters and peoples within that we absolutely do not want to leave! I have read many a fantasy novel - and I read Chronicles and Legends as both a kid and as an adult and college professor - and I can safely state that, in my opinion, the Dragonlance series (at least these first 6) are the ONLY ones that have ever made me feel that way.
Overview - The Narrator, Ax Norman:
I have said the same thing since "Time of the Twins:" listener/buyer, beware! Even with all I have praised the series for and all I have praised the authors for, Ax Norman is the one variable that can take away from all of the magic and wonder of Krynn! Everyone sounds the same, and every instance - tragic, exciting, dull, romantic - is treated, in largest part, with the same tone, rhythm, pace, and meter, making what is supposed to be poignant or otherwise important seem mundane.
True, not every narrator gets in and "performs" an audiobook, and though I admittedly prefer those who do, even those others whom I have heard thus far who do not perform, at least seem to try and make some distinction between characters, events, and moods. Raistlin, the archmage whose dark and ambitious soul, and who we are meant to simultaneously admire and loathe, for example, never - according to the books - speaks above a calm-ish, "indoor" voice, indeed rarely above more than an audible whisper except when he is angry, giving a command, or lost in his magic, yet the whiny, sophomoric voice of Norman - the one used for everyone - drains Raistlin of the darkness, the mystery, and so on. It is ONLY through the mastery of the authors that we know what mood is SUPPOSED to be set or what a character is SUPPOSED to be doing or thinking.
Norman nearly robs the series of all that is good about it, through his dry and monotonous reading - not expressing - of the story.
And, as I have mentioned before: Norman, if you are going to slaughter the pronunciation of character and place names, the names of the moons and continents, and even various words found in the English language, AT LEAST BE CONSISTENT!!!
For example, our beloved kender, TASSlehoff Burfoot: when using his full name, Norman pronounces it, indeed TASS (rhyming with "glass")-lehoff, and even calls him "Tas" (again, rhyming with "glass") once or twice, but then proceeds with "TOSS" or even "TAHZ" throughout the rest of the series. And, is the moon Sola-NAH-ri, or Sola- NAIR-i? Because, he uses both even within the same paragraph...is it Fiz-BAN, Fiz-BIN, or Fiz-BAHN? RAStlin or RAIStlin? DAY-as, or DIE-as (for dais)?
The reading is absolutely RIFE with these pronunciation faux pas, again, multiple ways of saying the same words, even within the same sentence, let alone paragraphs...
One last word: I will pay VERY close attention to who the narrator is from now on, and will always listen to the sample prior to purchasing any other audiobook. Moreover, if even my favorite book is made avaialbel, but is narrated by Ax Norman, I will run screaming the other way! Stick to commercials and stage, Ax - leave audiobook narrating to, well, ANYONE else...
The Dragonlance story, in my opinion, is one of the best fantasy series ever written; "Chronicles" and "Legends" being the pinnacle of the vessel launched by Weis and Hickman in the early 80s.
"Chronicles" narrator, (Paul) Boehmer, not only captured the feel of the world in books, but the essence of the characters - something that creates the true magic of these stories. These characters' depths of feeling, devotion to each other, inner turmoil, struggle with both the good and the evil within and without, and so on is what draws a reader in and captures them!
This, however, was nearly obliterated by (Ax) Norman, the narrator for "Legends," who left the books dry and without emotion. He should truly have given a listen to Boehmer before he started or, at very least, done research of his own - perhaps consulting with Weis and/or Hickman before slaughtering pronunciations, draining the passion of the characters, and making flavorless the overall feel of the World of Krynn and all those "living" upon it.
At very least, he should have gone back to previous recordings and, hearing his own voice, remained consistent in his pronunciations and overall rhythm and tempo of his tale. Is it Paladin, or PalaDINE? Is it RAStlin, or RAIstlin? TANE-is or TANis? Good gods, man - pick one, even if you're slaughtering it, and stick with it!
Perhaps one of the dullest narrators ever employed, but moreso because his narration removes the essence and life of the story. Funny moments were made bland; serious and important moments made to seem not only ordinary, but that almost make the reader uncaring.
We can only hope that these can one day be redone by Boehmer or, perhaps, another narrator who knows how to perform, and who obviously cares that the listener be drawn in, entertained, and transported rather than one interested in gathering an easy paycheck.
I actually loved the story, but the '4 out of 5' rating and the title of this review stem from the fact that I feel, like others who have written reviews here, that this book and the last should have been a single work - the majority of "Lord of Mountains" was simply a continuation of "Tears of the Sun." It is clearly necessary for there to be continuity between books in a series, but this one felt more like a "Part II" of "Tears" rather than a sequel that could stand alone. Each of Stirling's other novels in the series constantly built on each other, but could easily have been grabbed at random and, while the reader might scratch his/her head for a moment pondering details, would still have been able to convey the essentials of the story - not true here.
However, even if "Lord of Mountains" should have been packed into the last book,it was another fantastic installment in a unique and fulfilling series. I have been with the story since "Dies the Fire," and I read the Nantucket series, from which the Emberverse series sprang, before that. Never before has a series captivated me as much. I "plug in" on my commute to and from work, at my lunch break, and any time I have a spare moment or two - it is definitely worth the read (or listen)!
Still, as much as I love the series, I hope "The Given Sacrifice" draws the story to a close before there are "diminishing returns;" i.e., before the story stagnates. I have heard rumors that another series will follow this one, beginning yet another Changeling generation's tale, but - and it pains me to say it with as much as I have loved all of these - I sincerely hope not. I'm sure, as with other writers, that S.M. Stirling still has volumes of story and wonderful things to add to the world of The Change locked in his creative mind, but, as the saying goes: sometimes more isn't better, it's just more...all good things not only do, but should, come to an end, or they don't stay good things.
One thing that impresses me about all the audiobooks in the series (Nantucket and Emberverse) is that Todd McLaren has a) been used for every book and, b) he, as a narrator, is so consistent in his tones, his portrayal of each character, and his ability to draw emotion from the "reader" based on his performance. There are a good many audiobook series wherein a different narrator steps in each time, or there is a disconnect when a specific narrator goes on "hiatus" for a book or two, then returns (often only to forget their characters and the overall feel they themselves set up). McLaren is a master!
In short, thumbs, way, way up for the entire 12-book (so far) story and for Todd McLaren's performance of it, but Mr. Stirling: as awesome as it is, please wrap it up before the wonder and magic start to fade!
I am not far enough into this novel to really rate the overall story quite yet but, as for the audiobook rendition, I can warn that what I feared might happen to the narration seems to have happened. I am extremely happy to have Roy Dotrice as our storyteller once again (John Lee's performance was quite weak and took something away from Martin's themes and characters), but I am disappointed to find that he seems to have forgotten that he read the first three novels in the series. In those at least, each character's voice, personality, and the atmosphere each was set within never varied: one could pick out who each character was without the standard verbal cues (i.e. "...said Tyrion."), and the anguish, love, anger, etc. each character experienced was well portrayed and established each as who they were. Under Dotrice's craftsmanship, the voice of child-come-queen Daenerys, after all of her terrors, trials, and triumphs, develops from a child-like, fearful thing into that of a confident Khalissi, and ultimately into that of a proud Queen of House Targaryen, all subtly and without damage to the integrity of the voice or the character. in "A Dance with Dragons," this character has been diminished to a weaker personality by the change in her voice (she now sounds like Samwell Tarly). Only Tyrion's voice and that of the aforementioned Sam Tarly remain the same as before, though there are hints of continuity between Stannis Baratheon's voice in the first three and this most recent installment. The "Red Priestess" even has a high, nasal, French accent now - even though her voice is consistently described by Martin as a "sultry, husky, accentless [i.e. difficult to place its origins]" voice! Disappointing when the same reader's various performances are so disjointed. It is obvious that Dotrice took too much time away from the series during his "absence" in Book 4. It is early yet, though, so I am hoping something will jog his memory...
As with Martin's other titles in this series, the reader is drawn in emotionally, and is captivated by the series of events. There really is no ambiguity in one's feelings toward each character: you hate them, love them, or love to hate them, though those emotional "alliances" are not set in stone. Nevertheless, there is some disconnect between characters and events in this book that did not exist in the others, and some of the goings-on leave the reader wondering why certain events, details, and even characters have been included. This is explained to an extent in the epilogue by none other than the author himself, but do not be surprised if, in finishing this book, you feel somewhat lost or, at very least, less "fulfilled" than in the previous novels in the series.
A word on the audiobook specifically: Personally, I hate it when there are different narrators. As I do love a good performance and get used to the voices and personalities of each character given to the listener by the respective reader, a shift of any sort, but especially a dramatic one, damages the story. Pronunciations of place names and names of characters vary too widely between/among readers, and the atmosphere of the novel(s) change(s). The shift from Roy Dotrice to John Lee, however necessary or not (I obviously do not know the circumstances of the change), hugely impacted the story, as received in audio format. John Lee's take on story, characters, and atmosphere pales in comparison to the first three, read by Dotrice, and is almost like having each character introduced to the listener for the first time.
So, bottom line: this part of Martin's story is disjointed, but enjoyable (we can hope the next novel provides a safety net for many of the loopholes), but this narrator should have had a heart-to-heart with Dotrice about voices, events, and characters before being allowed to perform it.
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