I was intrigued by Brian Lee Durfee's The Forgetting Moon as soon as I read the cover blurb. And when I got in touch with Joe Monti, the Editorial Director at Saga Press, he said that the book was a direct heir to the great Raymond E. Feist, Tad Williams, Katherine Kurtz, and late 90s-style that's evident in Kate Elliott, Brent Weeks, Brian Staveley, and few others these days. As was the case with The Dragonbone Chair, Monti claims that Durfee is playing with all the tropes, and it's fun to see how he plays it out. After reading that email, how could I not give this fantasy debut a shot?
Weighing in at nearly 800 pages, The Forgetting Moon is a huge novel. And it does feature a very interesting and compelling story. Trouble is, that tale is buried under such an enormous amount of superfluous and often pointless material that it makes sifting through it all quite off-putting at times. In my humble opinion, getting rid of all that overburdening excess would shave off between 250 and 300 pages and would make for a better balanced and more enjoyable reading experience. It would allow all the nice and captivating elements of the story to truly shine and elevate this work to another level. Unfortunately, as things stand, you have to dig through too many extraneous scenes, conversations, and other redundant or nonessential sequences to get to the good stuff. And I'm not sure that most readers will be willing to go through this often arduous process.
Here's the blurb:
A massive army on the brink of conquest looms large in a world where prophecies are lies, magic is believed in but never seen, and hope is where you least expect to find it. Welcome to the Five Isles, where war has come in the name of the invading army of Sør Sevier, a merciless host driven by the prophetic fervor of the Angel Prince, Aeros, toward the last unconquered kingdom of Gul Kana. Yet Gault, one of the elite Knights Archaic of Sør Sevier, is growing disillusioned by the crusade he is at the vanguard of just as it embarks on his Lord Aeros’ greatest triumph. While the eldest son of the fallen king of Gul Kana now reigns in ever increasing paranoid isolationism, his two sisters seek their own paths. Jondralyn, the older sister, renowned for her beauty, only desires to prove her worth as a warrior, while Tala, the younger sister, has uncovered a secret that may not only destroy her family but the entire kingdom. Then there's Hawkwood, the assassin sent to kill Jondralyn who has instead fallen in love with her and trains her in his deadly art. All are led further into dangerous conspiracies within the court. And hidden at the edge of Gul Kana is Nail, the orphan taken by the enigmatic Shawcroft to the remote whaling village of Gallows Haven, a young man who may hold the link to the salvation of the entire Five Isles. You may think you know this story, but everyone is not who they seem, nor do they fit the roles you expect. Durfee has created an epic fantasy full of hope in a world based on lies.
As an artist, Brian Lee Durfee has an uncanny eye for detail. His descriptive prose paints a vivid picture which creates a vibrant imagery that literally leaps off the page. That would be a great asset, if only it wasn't done in such an over-the-top manner. Indeed, as far as descriptions are concerned, it appears that the author is trying to give Tolkien a run for his money. I kid you not. It's that hardcore throughout The Forgetting Moon. À la Robert Jordan, Durfee describes in minute details every single facial and physical feature of every single man and woman appearing in any given scene, as well as every last stich of embroidery on every single dress or gown. Sometimes, less is more. In order not to bury readers under a ton of extraneous details, Durfee needs to find the appropriate balance between providing that evocative imagery which allows readers to live vicariously through the prose and the extreme minutia that bogs down the narrative and serves little purpose in the greater scheme of things.
I've read in an interview that Durfee would like to make every installment in this series 55 chapters long. This, I believe, would be a mistake. A book needs to be as long as necessary to convey its tale in full to readers. Some will be incredibly long, like Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson and A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin, while others will be decidedly short, like Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Padding a story with unneeded and disposable material will only result in a bloated and overwritten work concealing instead of revealing everything that's good about its characters and its storylines. Hence, I feel that a trimmed down version of about 500 pages or so would have worked much better and ultimately would have made Durfee's The Forgetting Moon the SFF debut of 2016. Alas, it was not to be. . .
In style and tone, the author also needs to decide what he wants his The Five Warrior Angels series to be. Although he's striving to write a throwback epic fantasy, an homage that recaptures everything that made Jordan's The Wheel of Time, Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and other bestselling series such memorable reads back in the day, too often The Forgetting Moon reads like a YA novel. I understand that the majority of the protagonists whose points of view we follow are adolescents. And yet, the same can be said of Martin's AGame of Thrones, in which most of Starks are even younger than Durfee's characters, and that book never reads like something not meant for an adult audience. Other readers and reviewers have mentioned how dark and violent this debut can be. It is that, no doubt about it. But it features none of the nuances and gray areas and moral ambiguity that have made works by R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, and Mark Lawrence such unforgettable reads. In many ways, the graphic violence and gore found in The Forgetting Moon reminded me of those found within the pages of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains. Beyond the shock value they provide, it was more or less gratuitous and purposeless. This is especially obvious with everything that has to do with the Angel Prince's entourage. They are so evil, badass, and cruel that it turns them into little more than exaggerated caricatures. The shades of gray that are hallmarks of all great grimdark novels/series are peculiarly absent. Everything is either black or white.
The worldbuilding is top notch. A lot of work went into the creation of this universe and it definitely shows in the history of the various lands, the different societies, their religions, etc. Brian Lee Durfee has created a richly detailed and fascinating world, one that truly comes alive through his descriptive narrative (even if it's almost always overdone). Fantasy tropes abound throughout, what with the orphaned village boy, old prophecy, quest for magical weapons, dark-cloaked assassins, the return of an ancient god, yada yada yada. And yet, though we were promised otherwise, none of these tropes were used to twist readers' expectations in unanticipated and interesting ways. At least not in this book. I reckon it may occur in subsequent volumes, but there is nothing in The Forgetting Moon that subverts those clichés. Which, as I was told to expect the unexpected, was a disappointment. Also, the presence of elves and orcs just bearing different names was a bit lackluster, especially given the care with which Durfee created everything else. I have a feeling that perhaps the author was a bit too ambitious with this project, or at least with this debut. He strove to produce something truly epic, something that echoed with depth, something quite vast in scope. But he might not have reached the stage in his writing career where he can write a novel/series that can do justice to what he envisioned. Time will tell if Durfee can up his game and bring The Blackest Heart, the second installment, and the other forthcoming sequels to the next level.
The characterization is definitely the aspect that leaves the most to be desired. Although The Forgetting Moon is meant to be a blend of epic fantasy and grimdark, the perspectives of Nail, Tala, Jondralyn, and Ava Shay all read like YA material. Which is a problem, for as far as style and tone are concerned, this sort of narrative is a world away from what epic fantasy and grimdark works ought to be. Tala's POV, especially, makes little sense. That quest to save her friend was often ridiculous. Only the tormented perspective of Gault Aulbrek reads like something aimed at an adult audience, but it only serves to accentuate the stylistic discordance between the various POVs. Another thing that might not sit well with some readers would have to be the decidedly out of place and awkward sexualized descriptions of girls/women, even though most of the viewpoint characters are female. And given the treatment authors such as Bakker and Lawrence received at the hands of the SFF feminist clique, I have a feeling that Durfee might well be crucified if they ever read his debut. The supporting cast is comprised of a number of equally uninspired and engaging secondary characters. There are those who are simply over-the-top like Squireck Van Hester and Val-Draekin, while others have more substance like Shawcroft and Roguemoore. Due to the novel's bloated size, it takes a very long time for things to start to make sense and to get an inkling of the protagonists' importance and place in the greater scheme of things. Brian Lee Durfee does indeed have a few surprises up his sleeve, but at times I felt that it was a case of too little, too late.
Understandably, the pace is atrocious. With the narrative bogged down by an unending supply of superfluous scenes and details, it makes for a very slow-moving affair. I've always admired Guy Gavriel Kay for his ability to convery more in a sentence than most writers in a paragraph. More in a paragraph than most writers in a chapter, and more in a chapter than most writers in a full novel. Durfee is the polar opposite. He needs a paragraph to convey something that normally requires a sentence and a chapter for what could usually be conveyed in a paragraph or two. This prevents the book from ever gaining much momentum. Having said that, regardless of a rhythm that crawls forward at a snail's pace, there is always that little compelling nugget that keep you turning those pages. Buried deep underneath all that excess material, there is always a new revelation that demonstrates that there is an absorbing story at the heart of this book. Courageous readers will keep going, chapter after chapter, but boy does the author make you work for that progress. And therein lies this debut's biggest failings. Not every speculative fiction fan will be willing to work this hard to unearth these golden nuggets of storytelling.
Another complication is that there is no ending per se. Just a "to be continued" message with no resolution of any sort. This, in my opinion, is a huge gamble, both for the author and his publisher. You are basically asking readers, who just went through nearly 800 pages of a tale that offers absolutely no payoff at the end, to trust you and have them fork out their hard-earned money for the sequel. Most fantasy debuts, even when they are part of a planned trilogy or longer series, are more or less stand-alone in terms of structure. Even though they leave the door open for a lot more to come, there is usually a payoff at the end, as every debut author attempts to close the show with a bang that will reel in readers and force them to read whatever comes next. Using this episodic approach is extremely risky, methinks. Time will tell if this gamble will pay off in the end.
The Forgetting Moon could have been the fantasy debut of the year. No doubt about it. Sadly, the novel suffers from too many shortcomings that prevent it from achieving its full potential. We can only hope that Brian Lee Durfee can raise the bar and elevate his game without making the same mistakes in the second volume.
I'm not going to say that Durfee might be the next Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Tad Williams, or Steven Erikson. He's not. But given his black-and-white style and the scope of his vision, if he corrects the flaws that plagued his debut, he could definitely become the next Brandon Sanderson. And that's not a bad thing!