The Ninth Avatar: review

Since the author of the Ninth Avatar, Todd Newton, is a friend of mine, his book gets its own discussion instead of an end of the year paragraph. This is his debut novel.

Before starting to read, I found the cover art appealing and the font annoying. I consider it a huge plus that the novel can be read as a standalone.

A cast of characters from different cultural and religious backgrounds are joined in a fight against an undead army that is ravaging their land. A Mystian priestess named Starka has visions that the turmoil foreshadows the Avatar of Darkness. She is sent into the world to attempt to influence the events of her prophecy, and meets survivors who are determined to bring down the Carrion army.

My impressions of the book are divided largely between the different character sections. There were a few character arcs that I always enjoyed reading and a few that grated on me. In particular, I was interested in everything to do with Cairos, a wizard whose city was destroyed by the Carrion army. I could have easily read an entire book that centered around him and his magic – his sections read easily and the small glimpse of his backstory was immediately interesting. I also appreciated the sections dealing with Xymon, a Carrion army general. He had the aesthetic of a Nazi officer or any real subordinate climbing to the top through bloodshed. His jealousies, grasping and fear added interest that wouldn’t have been present if his army had been presented as a vague force of evil. Most of the other characters with their own sections were enjoyable and sympathetic but spread a bit thin.

However, the main character Starka annoyed me so much that it was difficult to read about her. I think she must be the sister of Bella from Twilight. She was always doing stupid things, asking stupid questions, had a 14 year old’s sexual maturity, and was always needing to be rescued by a man. To be fair, she was previously a sheltered member of a patriarchal religion, and she felt accurate as such, but it didn’t make her easier to read. I was disappointed in DaVille as well. He had a troubled past as a warrior, but I never got a good sense of his deeper motivations. I felt that his character was trying to have it both ways – that he was so damaged and beyond human emotions that he couldn’t connect to anyone and being pulled toward his destiny was all that was left for him, and that he was developing emotions toward Starka and becoming more caring – and I ultimately didn’t buy either. Disliking main characters who are supposed to be good guys made things somewhat difficult.

A real strength for me was the way that religions were constructed and appeared to have real signs and powers, despite each culture having its own religion and own gods or forces. It struck me as being like a world where Christianity, African traditional religion and Hinduism as well as fantasy style magic all had undeniable manifestations, and while each religion could sequester itself to some degree, it would be impossible to entirely deny that the other religions had real and tangible powers. I’d have liked to see even more about the interactions between different religions and their followers, especially how they dealt with the Pillars and the Avatars. For example, Wan Du’s deity appears to speak him, but it’s not very clear the relationship that the deity has with the Pillars, or if there’s spiritual conflict  between deities of different cities when there’s physical conflict between the warriors of the cities. I would also like to have more information on the different Avatars and how their manifestations come about. I think that the setting would be conducive to having some short stories filling in some of the history and details of the different religions and cultures.

The main problem that I had with the plot was how several plot points came and went very quickly and without much precedent. The subplot about Starka’s brother seems like it’s going to be important at the beginning, but it goes nowhere for a long time, and even when it surfaces again, it does almost nothing to change the events of the story. Elsewhere, spells and charms and magical items occasionally come out of nowhere to advance the plot. Perhaps trying to fill up an entire world with characters, cultures and an epic conflict was a little too much. There’s a reason that epic fantasy tends to require several volumes, and I felt that some detail and buildup was sacrificed to be able to tell the entire story in one book. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of epic and I prefer standalones, so my preference would have been less character perspectives and a more focused quest, but I think that the story would work well with expansion. I also think that it would work well as a movie. I’m excited that Todd Newton is continuing in this setting by writing a prequel, and I’m hoping to find out more about the beliefs and cultures that make up the world.

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