I picked up The Lodestone Trilogy, by Mark Whiteway for $6.99 in a special Kindle bundling. The synopsis sounded decent, and it was labeled an award-winning best seller so I figured that lent social proof to it being of quality. The plan was, like with My Thoughts on THE HUNGER GAMES, to report back after every book in the series but by the time I had any time to write about the first book, I was already half way through the second and thoughts were all starting to blend together. I figured I’d just wait until I finished the full trilogy. A thousand pages and 360,000 words later, I’ve got some things to say. This will be a bit of a long post. I considered breaking it into multiple posts but ultimately said screw it. Let’s get into it. As always, my friends, there will be some moderate spoilers from here on in.
The Breakdown: In the pre-industrial Kelanni society, soldiers collect tributes from towns on a regular basis on behalf of a tyrannical prophet. These tributes will be worked to death mining something called Lodestone, a metal with magical properties that’s built into the weapons of the prophet’s elite Keltar warriors. When the soldiers, accompanied by one of the Keltar, visit the town of Corte, they’re unexpectedly attacked by a stranger inexplicably using Keltar technology. The man, Lyall, is on the verge of defeat if not for the bold intervention of a scullery maid called Shann. This puts Shann on an adventure she never could have dreamed for to save her people not simply from tyranny but from utter annihilation.
That breakdown covers most the basics of book one (called The Sea of Storms), but there is a lot going on in this trilogy.
By midway through The Sea of Storms, a Keltar named Keris turns on her wicked ways when she learns that the prophet is not Kelanni but a man not of their world – a human. (I didn’t yet mention that the Kelanni are aliens but I will get to that.) So, okay. Humans. How does Keris find this out? From a Kelanni who died three thousand years ago. Annata, representing a technologically advanced extinct civiliation of Kelanni, built some devices before their end that let them check in to see what the distant future of their people would hold. She saw the destruction of their species at the hands of this human and they built a device that would let them warn the present-day Kelanni – Keris – and even communicate live, both ways, across milennia. Annata’s people entrusted this device to the other intelligent species on the planet – the forest dwelling Chandara.
And yes, this is still book one. Book one ends with the party of Lyall, Shann, Keris, and a bard with a “magic” accordion, all trying to bypass a massive ocean-spanning stormfront to get to the other side of the planet to acquire a device that Annata set aside for them with the power to neutralize the human weapon. It ends with a cliffhanger, which I thought was a bit of a cheat. — One book, one full story please. Use the other books of the trilogy to expand and build on it. Kthxbye.
Getting into book two, the Kelanni on the other side of the world are industrialized and technology comparable to our mid 20th century. Our main group is now split into two. Plus we’re introduced to the humans and a human named McCann becomes a focal character.
For those keeping score, we’ve got:
- a mysterious religious figure using “magical” technology to enslave a pre-industrial populace
- devices that allow communication from the past
- Kellani from two isolated and different cultures and levels of technological development
- communication from Kelanni in the distant past
- the ancient Kelanni’s long abandoned cities filled with an even more advanced level of technology – we’re talking replicators and holodecks straight out of star Trek.
- humans who want to destroy the Kelanni, to keep the magical lodestone
- dissent among the humans, some of whom just want to go home
- a third sentient species of life to contend with, themselves very different on both sides of the planet
Phew. Like I said, there’s a lot going on here. Fortunately, it’s all threaded together pretty nicely and the story flows well for the most part. On the whole, I wouldn’t say that I loved the series, but I did enjoy it. The focal characters were generally pretty well developed with their own goals and conflicts. The story had some very strong points and for the most part was interesting. Of course, there are things…
We Relate to People We Can Relate to As People
One big disconnect for me is that the Kelanni are aliens. I mentioned before about my habit of skimming synopses and I missed the fact that this was aliens on an alien world. We, as people, tend to use story as a communal experience, to relate relatable experiences and help ourselves learn and understand both each other and the world. We all process things through our own individual filters, but it’s the commonalities we look for that allow us to connect to the differences. The stories that the most people can relate to are the ones that become the most popular.
That’s the reason most of the aliens we’re so familiar with are really just mirrors of ourselves. Honorable Klingons and devious Ferengi exist to reflect human qualities. When aliens are intended to be really alien, writers will go out of the way to make them unrelatable. Think of the Vorlons or the Shadows on Babylon 5.
That to say, unless instructed otherwise, readers will tend to consider aliens in fiction as human. It’s our go-to because it’s our frame of reference. And the Kelanni in the Lodestone Trilogy might as well be human – especially when through the first book, there are no humans to make literary comparisons with. They’re described as olive-skinned, but that’s how we describe people of Mediterranean or North African origin. When we meet humans and are in a human mindset, we learn the Kelanni really are greenish, but that isn’t until midway through the second book. The Kelanni also have tails – not useful ones, just appendages – that are mentioned every twenty or so chapters.
What all this means is that it’s way too easy to forget they’re aliens and just visualize them – using our human filters – as humans, particularly through the first book and a half. By missing just a few details here and there, it was perhaps half way through the first book before I even realized they weren’t human and the fact that we need to constantly remind ourselves of the alienness of the Kelanni hurts immersion.
(As a sidebar, being on an alien world also meant we had some strangely-named animals that were all equivalents of animals we have here. Morgren were basically camels. Graylesh were basically horses. The thing about that is that it gives me more I have to keep track of. Every time I read ralekesh I have to consciously think — what was that again? When I thought this was straight-fantasy – before the alien thing fully hit me – this was a real annoyance. Since the Kelanni call everything else by “human” terms – doors, houses, inns, barns, wagons, they even have olives – give me real animal names. After the alien realization, I see why it was done, but it wasn’t less annoying. It still hurt immersion a bit because – again, it was an unrelatable element that I had to break story to think about. It also created problems with analogies. What does it mean to say, “she moved with the grace of a dagan.” Is she as graceful as a gazelle or a stampeding rhino? I dunno.)
It also says something that when we introduce the human, McCann, later in the second book (The World of Ice and Stars) that I’m instantly able to feel more connected to him than I ever was to the Kelanni characters. People connect to the familiar.
Contrast this to Robert J. Sawyer‘s brilliant Quintaglio Ascension, which is a book about evolved, sentient dinosaurs on another planet. Sawyer goes well out of his way with every paragraph to make sure you’re constantly aware that these are not humans. There’s never a page where you can forget they’re dinosaurs. Yet, at the same time, they’re still eminently relatable because of the deep characterization. They’ve got goals and dreams we can recognize. Sawyer is also consistent in tone, keeping it clear that these are science fiction books.
Speaking of which…
What Do You Want To Be?
I don’t know if The Lodestone Trilogy was supposed to be fantasy or was supposed to be science fiction – or if it even knew itself.
It started, and lasted through the whole first book, in a pre-industrial society with no hard science and a metal that held magical properties. There’s also a cutesy little second intelligent species in the mix. The Sea of Storms was written as a fantasy.
Until suddenly there are space-faring humans, a second Kelanni culture that’s science driven, and ancient super-advanced civilizations. It’s starting to feel all science fictiony. Except that the magical properties of Lodestone are only half-heartedly explained, have absurd properties, and still come across way more like magic than any science.
Sure there’s argument to be made that any sufficiently advanced science will seem like magic to those who don’t understand it – and I’ll buy that – except that here, in these books, our frame of reference is with those who don’t understand it. Even to the more advanced Kelanni, Lodestone is more magical than anything. So the reader perspective is that it’s magic. Believe me, I would have loved to have made some scientific sense of it, but it just wasn’t happening. In fact, the entire end of the first book made no plausible sense to me. I accepted it only because, shit, it’s magic, bro. Nothing to follow convinced me otherwise, leaving the trilogy with some kind of weird 60% fantasy, 40% science fiction type split. (And not that it didn’t work, it just felt odd.)
“That’s lesson number one,” he said.
The first thing you’re likely to learn if you do any research or try and get any education about writing a novel – maybe the second, after proper point of view – is that people are conditioned to ignore the word “said.” If you put – she said – at the end of any dialogue, it’s like candy for the eyes, allowing the brain to ignore it and move on to the next bit without further thought.
I don’t think I read the word said one time in all 995 pages of this trilogy. Almost every line of dialogue is qualified with its own speech verb and often followed by paragraphs of other description. I could count on one hand the number of times that I read a quick-paced, smoothly flowing conversation.
If any emerging writers out there are reading this – if you get just one thing from this entire blog – please look into this. Don’t make these mistakes. Said is a wonderful tool. A hard one to get used to but worth taking the effort on if you want your prose to flow.
Endings and Other Minutia.
Before I end this post talking about the ending to the Lodestone Trilogy, here are some of the other story-type things that came up from time to time and pulled me out of fully enjoying The Lodestone Trilogy.
- The couple of instances where point of view characters could not possibly have known the things they were thinking. i.e., Shann referring to an event that only the other group in the other storyline knew about, or Keris thinking “It seemd that the experience with Susan Gilmer had affected all of them profoundly” which was putting thoughts in other people’s heads.
- The instances where the characters all just agreed with each other too easily simply as a way to move the plot forward quickly. i.e., Keris coming up with an intricate plan that, when asked to explain it, she asks the others to just trust her on while she takes them through step after intricate step – which they do. This was so the audience would experience it first hand, but better may have been to let her explain to the others “off page” and bring the audience back in afterwards so that the other characters don’t seem like total dolts. (Imagine playing Frogger in real life, and instead of being told, we’re going to cross one lane of traffic, then wait, then cross another, then wait – you’re told, trust me. Just do what I say. Would any sane person listen without asking for an explanation that is – quite frankly – easy to give?)
- The places where things were too easy for the characters. I want to qualify this by saying that this wasn’t an epidemic. The characters were challenged in the book, they were pushed, they were tested. The story was stronger for it. But there were a lot of places where the opposite was true, too, and things were just plain convenient. i.e., a desert fortress outpost prison where they keep all the slaves apparently had an inn and allowance for entertainers and traders to visit and stay within the walls. It’s a great cover for our heroes but a horrible security practice for the most important prison in the prophet’s infrastructure.
- The occasional plot point that barely makes sense or completely defies logic. i.e., There’s a force field barrier that moves aside when a bracelet-wearer approaches. They treat it in the book as only the bracelet-wearer can pass through, but it’s pretty clear that the bracelet itself creates an opening that while open – say if the wearer stands in the opening – would allow anybody to pass through it.
- When characters were idiotic for the sake of plot. i.e., Shann and company believing that disabling the human weapons will eliminate the threat of the humans and be the end of their quest – ignoring the fact that the humans can just rebuild the weapons and, in fact, what Shann and her friends are doing will disable these first weapons but actually make it easier for the humans to build new and better ones. In My Thoughts on TREASURE ISLAND, I said the characters there lived up to their fullest potential, remarking it as delightful that the characters weren’t dumbed down for plot. This is a prime example of where they obviously were.
- The repetition of exposition we already know.
That last thing happened a lot and brings me to what will be my third last point. At the end of it all, I believe this story could have been a lot tighter and, if it were properly trimmed and worked on by a good editor, would have been much stronger at two-thirds the length.
Second last point. The proselytizing. I was suspicious of this for a good long while. So much so that when it happened I literally said aloud – oh, there it is.
We humans marched out into the stars like we owned everything – like everything was there for the taking. Caesar, Cortex, Custer – the lessons of our own history taught us that if you want something, you go out and grab it, and you step on anything that gets in your way.
Nice alliteration aside, this is what you call stating the obvious. It was a pretty shallow message to begin with so spelling it out on the page just made me cringe. Readers are clever and like drawing their own conclusions.
Last point. (And you deserve a cookie if you’ve read this far.)
Endings are tough. Coming up with good, satisfying, earned endings, is one of the hardest things about writing. And while I wish I could say that The Lodestone Trilogy had a good, satisfying, earned ending…
(I saved this for last because major spoilers will follow. You’ve been warned.)
For two and three-quarter books, Lyall was the group’s leader. Eleven years prior, he had been part of a failed rebellion that got a lot of folk killed and cost him the life of his sister, Aune. It’s been a driving factor in his arc. He finds out through suspicious means that his sister is still alive and through those same means discovers a way he might save her from the custody of the prophet. So he seemingly betrays the group (really playing a double-agent, of course) to rescue her. That’s all well and good, except for one thing.
We’re never told why the prophet kept Aune alive at all. The prophet has enslaved and is out to destroy all of the Kelanni people and he keeps hundreds of prisoner-slaves out in the mining prison where he works them to death. We never heard one word about any personal slaves or prisoners. There’s no chance he’s fallen in love with a green-skinned alien he loathes. Yet he inexplicably keeps one random girl alive and in a “gilded cage” for eleven years – who just happens to be Lyall’s sister.
The only reason I could come up with was – to move the plot forward. Way too convenient.
Plus, for the entire three books being about getting rid of the prophet, they suddenly kill him off very quickly and make the climax of the book a battle between Keris and some random Keltar who we only met a few chapters ago. Let down.
What did you think? Did you find any of the things I did? Do you have any other book suggestions for me? Join the discussion in the comments below because I’d love to hear from you.
It’ll be a while before I get into the next three books of this series. Possibly a long while. But I am interested enough that I’m sure I’ll get to them one day. If you’d like to learn more about the author or the Lodestone series – there’s his personal website. Or you can grab the e-versions of the trilogy over on Amazon. Oh, and the first book of the series is free if you’re interested–but remember the cliffhanger.
(This is part of a series of “book reports” I’m doing – recording my thoughts on the books I’m reading as part of a general desire to read more. This will typically be talking about what I like and what felt false, filtered through the lens of what I, and perhaps other writers, can learn from it. It won’t be a discussion of deeper themes and meanings. Comments are always open to tell me your take. Click here to see all the books I’ve talked about.)