Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Masters of Cardalba Series by Tom Deitz

Every so often, I am moved to pick up the works of a new (to me) author when my old favorites aren't producing new works fast enough to keep up with my appetites. Tom Deitz has been writing fantasy for a few years now, but I just bought his trilogy about the Masters of Cardalba, and read the first one, Soulsmith. It was a pleasant surprise.

Note: By the time I got around to finishing this review, I had read the whole trilogy, so it became a bit difficult to say something inane like "I'm looking forward to the sequel", so I've decided to review them as a whole.

Soulsmith is the story of Ronny Dillon, a young man who has just lost everything that he loves, a promising swimming and diving competitor who destroys his kneecap in a 10 meter fall, and whose parents are killed in a freak automobile accident the same day. Ronny is sent to live with relatives in a remote small town in Georgia, where things begin to get a little strange.

Ronny's great uncle Matt is the Master of Cardalba, latest in a line of masters who have used their Luck, minor magical powers akin to ESP, to make the town and people surrounding their estate prosperous. The Masters have historically been benevolent, but Matt, the product of an incestuous relationship, has gone a little paranoiac and power-mad, and is bent on restoring his estate to its pre-Civil War glory, no matter what the cost. Ronny and his cousin, Lew, must battle against Matt and Anson, his renegade protege, to save themselves, and the town from dire consequences.

Soulsmith moves a bit slowly throughout, but has a lot of nifty plot twists good characterizations. One of the things I though was neat was that each initiate of the Luck has a Flaw, a sort of Achilles heel known only to three people which will kill them if it becomes necessary for the "good of the Land". Also, there's a wacky character called The Road Man who teaches Ronny about how to be a soulsmith, whose comic antics and philosophical musings provide a nice counterpoint to one another. Deitz also introduces a musical version of Tarot readings, called the mojo, wherein the first twelve songs heard on the radio after midnight determine the omens for that day.

Dreambuilder takes up about four years after Soulsmith, as Ronny is graduating from college. Lew has assumed the Mastership of Cardalba after their uncle Matt's death, and convinces Ronny that he really needs him to come home, as there's trouble brewing again. Ronny has a lot of bad memories of his hometown, and is reluctant to return, but the mojo finally convinces him that it's his duty to help.

Lew has grown tired of the responsibilities of the Mastership, and wants a sabbatical of sorts. He'd like Ronny to take over for him while he goes off to college somewhere, as the Masters are bound to the land while they hold the position, and cannot leave it for very long. Ronny is about to meet the woman of his dreams, an independent young art teacher named Brandy, who is building a castle on a hill called Brandy Hall (the Tolkien references are obvious and intentional).

Ronny is coerced, or perhaps seduced, into staying to help Brandy with the metalwork on her castle. There are, however, mysterious forces in motion and it seems the supernatural forces are trying to make Ronny a pawn in their game once again. There's some blatant use of Welsh mythology here, scenes from the Mabinogion, and Deitz makes sure in the characters' dialogue that we are all aware of his sources.

One minor flaw I noticed in the first two books is that Deitz sometimes uses references that will soon become dated. For example, rather than go to the trouble of describing Ronny's features, he says that he looks like Kevin Bacon. This kind of thing is a little distracting. I find myself stopping in the middle of the page to wonder "What the heck does Kevin Bacon look like?" He also mentions some character who looks a lot like Legolas the elf, only not quite as tall. This is really a vague description, as every reader of Tolkien is going to get a different impression, as have all of the artists who've done Tolkien calendars over the last twenty years. But I digress.

One of the themes that runs through these books is that Ronny seems only to get motivated to do anything remotely heroic when either the physical or emotional well-being of his most current love interest is threatened. There's a lot of romantic conflict in all of the books (speaking from hindsight), and I was really bothered by Brandy's infidelity to Ronny at one point in Dreambuilder. She's been represented all through the book as a person of great integrity and honesty, but I totally lost all respect for her after that. To be perfectly fair, Ronny does the same thing at one point in the final novel, Wordwright, so he's betrayed my trust in him as far as I'm concerned, too. He doesn't even have the excuse that he was seduced by a supernatural being, as Brandy was. Again, I digress, but I think one can make one's characters human without them being amoral or unethical. Might be just a personal bias of mine in this age of promiscuity, but I believe that trust and fidelity are essential characteristics in a fantasy hero. If you're just looking for a gratuitous sex scene or so to sell books, you should be writing romance novels.

In the final "electrifying conclusion", Wordwright, Lew goes off in search of his long lost sister, to offer her heirs the Mastership of Cardalba. It turns out that she's even more of a nutcase than old uncle Matt was, and she holds Lew captive and incommunicado, and plans to sacrifice him in order to gain his powers to add to hers. Ronny begins to be concerned for Lew after he's fallen out of touch, and after having a fight with Brandy, first moves out of her castle, then hits the road in search of Lew.

Again, there are supernatural forces on the loose at Cardalba, as well as the threat from the mad sister, to keep us guessing. Brandy is producing a play about the history of Welch county in order to bring some tourism to revitalize the economy, which has gone into a slump since Lew abdicated. The portions of the play, which Deitz shares with us, provide some good outtakes on the history of the Masters and how they came into their power and powers.

I feel like sometimes Deitz goes out of his way to belittle the intelligence of his readers. For instance, he mentions a character who is living backwards in time, and one of the other characters spouts "Oh, like Merlin?". It's a lot more fun to guess and puzzle over what's been lifted and had the serial numbers filed off in someone's work than to have it all explained to you. Perhaps Deitz feels he might be the first author ever accused of plagiarism in fantasy if he doesn't cite his references, I don't know.

Anyway, all's well as ends well, and this trilogy does turn out all right. I liked the books enough to go out and find some more of Deitz' stuff, which I'll get around to reviewing one day. In the midst of some minor technical difficulties, all three books held my attention and interest well enough to keep me up past my bedtime for several evenings. There's a kind of plot twist involving the real protagonist of the stories involved in the titles of the books that will only become clear when you've finished them all, so go for it!

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