One of the old adages for a majority of literary and creative writing “gurus” is to write what you know. This can take on different meanings with different people, but to me it means write for your passion; it means write for yourself first and the public later. By doing so you’re able to imbue your characters with the love, the pain and the life experiences that you’ve personally had, which in turn allows them to live and breathe through you while having the freedom to add the wild ideas you’ve always wished to explore as a scintillating garnish. Christian Warren Freed, author of Where Have All the Elves Gone? gives this wise-old adage an interesting spin by not only giving his characters backstories that may correspond in certain ways with his own, but creatively compounds the idea by turning the life we know into something far from what we think it to be.
Daniel is a former army grunt who lives a mostly quiet life as a successful fantasy novelist. But when his long-time agent rejects his newest novel, Daniel’s world gets flipped upside down, right-side up, shaken and stirred. Unable to take no for an answer, Daniel heads into the city to talk his agent into reconsidering only to realize that the fantasy-based creatures — you know, the elves, trolls, gnomes, wraiths and of course dragons — he once thought were only part of his wild imagination, are real and living day-to-day lives among us. The shock to the system would have been enough for most people, but Daniel is given no time to process the situation before being tasked to return a mysterious box to the King of the High Elves and become a significant player in the war between two warring elf factions.
That’s a very condensed synopsis of what happens in the story, but to add anything more would only confuse you. There are many levels of subplots, hidden agendas, backstabbing and character fluctuations all squeezed into a meager 270 pages that it becomes almost hard to follow. It’s basically clear by the end of the novel what was happening, but up until the last couple of chapters, trying to understand even the most simple aspects behind the plot is frustrating, to say the least. Most of this is due to the way the narrative is written, with many intentionally kept secrets without enough intrigue. Even the intentions behind the main subplot — the fight between Alvin and Morgen, the leaders of the elves, who each want a different level of control — seems to bounce back and forth like a rubber ball in an tightly enclosed space. The ideas are there, but the way they’re expressed isn’t nearly as strong as it needed to be.
And it’s not just the plot that can’t find a solid footing. Character motivations seem to rise and fall with whatever the situation may entail, and though this is okay for a few of the minor characters who don’t have any loyalties to any one side, it hurts the integrity of the characters that should have a solid foundation in their decisions. The most egregious culprit of this is Daniel’s wife, Sara, who wavers between meek damsel-in-distress and gung-ho warrior powerhouse (with a little incensed wife in each). I’m not sure if I would have minded this double-sided characterization had we gotten to know Sara in more depth at the beginning of the novel. Other than a quick hello in the first chapter (and a few tidbits thrown about throughout the first half of the book) we know absolutely nothing about this woman to warrant any of what she’s able to accomplish in the latter half of the book. Because of this, the tensions that arise and the way the couple interact with one another falls flat against the overall backdrop.
Instead, we’re given a serious case of info-dump in the first chapter, information that could have been better served to have been sprinkled throughout. And some of it is, leading to a very repetitious narrative (how many times do we have to be reminded that until today, Daniel thought elves were only a figment of his imagination?) that tends to gloss over many aspects that deserved more time to develop. For instance, one of funner character’s dies about halfway through the book with nary an explanation for why, or even any response from our main line of heroes. He’s just dead.
But even with all of its flaws, the story tends to flow quickly, mostly because of Freed’s ability to write action sequences. Having been a soldier in Iraq and Afhganistan, Freed clearly understands the battlefield and how war itself operates, and that knowledge shines through on the page. Whenever there’s a battle, no matter how big or small, he makes it feel as if you’re in the heat of the battle with him. It’s clear this is where Freed’s real passion lies. Not that he isn’t passionate about the fantasy side of his books, but when he’s revealing all aspects of the fantasy world, everything, including a lot of the dialogue, feels stilted, as if Freed is a little lost and unsure. It’s only in those very specific battles that Freed feels so engaged, it’s hard not to be absorbed into the honesty that’s missing from the fantasy at the heart of the book.
My Grade: B-
Christian W. Freed was involved in three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan over the span of 20 years of active duty before devoting his time to writing and his family, with whom he lives Raleigh, N.C. He currently has 16 military-fantasy novels in print, several under contract, and has written many pieces for anthologies and magazines.
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