Thursday, January 26, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, Second Round :: Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint vs. The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

Eyes Like LeavesScar
We begin the second round of the 2012 Battle of the Books, Winter Bracket with The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko against Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after finishing the first 50 pages.

The Scar: Tor hardcover, February 2012, 336 pages, cover art by Richard Anderson. The Scar, by husband-and-wife authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, advanced to the second round by its first-round win over The Isis Collar by Cat Adams. The protagonist of The Scar is Egert, a brash womanizer and excellent swordsman in a proudly militaristic society.

In the opening 50 pages of the book, he arrogantly attempts to woo a beautiful university student away from her fiancé, who responds by challenging Egert to a duel. Egert is the much better fencer and plans to humiliate the man, but in the heat of the fight kills him instead. A mysterious stranger then challenges Egert, defeats him easily and slashes him across the face, leaving Egert with the eponymous scar. Egert soon feels his confidence slipping away, and by the end of 50 pages we suspect he has been cursed somehow.

Eyes Like Leaves: Tachyon trade paperback, February 2012, 313 pages, cover art by Lauren Kelly Small. Eyes Like Leaves got here by defeating J.M. McDermott's When We Were Executioners in the first round. World Fantasy Award-winner Charles de Lint wrote Eyes Like Leaves in approximately 1980, but it was not published at the time, in favor of de Lint's contemporary urban fantasies.

Eyes Like Leaves is high fantasy set in a place much like ancient Ireland. In the first 50 pages, we meet the wizard Tarn and his mentor Puretongue, who both have the power to change shape. The two wizards are perhaps the only hope of defeating Viking-like invaders led by the "Icelord," who is apparently bent on bringing a permanent ice age to the land. Tarn has been sent to find a young woman who is important to the struggle, although he does not know why -- and apparently neither does she.

The Battle: Both The Scar and Eyes Like Leaves have very interesting and engaging openings. I would be happy to keep reading either of them, but the rules of the contest force me to pick one.

It's difficult to find any fault at all in Eyes Like Leaves. Every sentence is beautifully composed, with a lovely symmetry to the ideas de Lint expresses. For instance, Tarn travels quickly by transforming into a swan, but this weakens him, so he regains his strength by spending some time as a tree.

Through 50 pages, Tarn is proving a compelling character. He is a very powerful wizard, yet still thinks of himself as a mere apprentice. When he tracks down the woman he is looking for, he finds her in the company of a charming family of tinkers, who distrust him. Annoyed, but unwilling to compel these good people against their will, Tarn turns into a unicorn and races off:
Tarn sped for miles, the wind sharp in his mane until he lost his anger in the four-footed drumming of his hooves. He galloped till the cool hand of reason wiped his anger away. Then he knew shame. . . . Fool, he named himself bitterly. Worse than a fool. He was a prideful boasting ass with scarcely an ounce left of the sense that Puretongue had instilled in him.
Tarn chastises himself, yet his display of power causes the tinkers to be on their guard, probably saving their lives when they are later attacked by a host of evil creatures. However, it will ultimately be up to Tarn, in a form even more impressive than his unicorn shape, to drive the creatures off. These initial skirmishes with the forces of evil make for good action sequences, but we know there is a much larger conflict to come.

If I had to try to find something to criticize in Eyes Like Leaves, it would be what I mentioned in the first round, that the story is built around a rather too tidy good-versus-evil conflict. But after 50 pages, I'm finding the opposite problem with The Scar. The Dyachenkos have perhaps done too good a job of making their protagonist a flawed character. In particular, they took me a bridge too far when they had Egert sniffing around after the fiancée of the man he killed, as if entitled to her as a prize:
Egert had been watching over the fiancée of the student he killed, though he himself did not know why. It is possible that he wanted to apologize and to express his sympathy, but it is more likely that he entertained certain vague hopes in regards to Toria. As a worshipper of risk and danger, he was accustomed to taking a relaxed approach to death, his own and others'. Should not the victor have a right to count on an allotment of the relinquished inheritance of his vanquished foe? What could be more natural?
OK, so this guy's a huge jerk. But this is by design; obviously, the Dyachenkos intend him to be a jerk. Egert is totally self-absorbed, but presumably he is going to go through experiences, starting with losing his next duel, that will force him to change and perhaps find redemption.

But Egert at least should have the decency to feel bad about killing the student in his duel. To then expect the guy's fiancée to fall into his arms makes him a little too contemptible to sympathize with at all. Even without that sympathy, I could be interested in Egert if I knew he had an important role to play in some larger conflict, but after 50 pages we don't know that -- we've had a glimpse of a devious organization created by a mad mage, but we don't have any idea what they're doing or how it might relate to Egert.

This is a minor complaint. Overall, I'm still enjoying The Scar and finding it well worth reading. But that slight wavering in my interest in the protagonist was enough to drop this battle to Eyes Like Leaves, which I'm finding extremely enjoyable and exquisitely written.


Eyes Like Leaves advances to the semifinals, to take on either Shadows in Flight by Orson Scott Card or Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson.

We'll be posting another second round result every other day until we're done.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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