The Scar review

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sergey and Marina Dyachenko are the Ukranian co-authors of several Fantasy novels, novellas and short stories published in Russian. The Scar, the second novel in the 'Wanderers' Cycle, won a prize in 1997 for the best Fantasy in Europe. It is their first book published in America. The translation is the work of Elinor Huntington.
Reaching far beyond sword and sorcery, The Scar is a story of two people torn by disaster, their descent into despair, and their reemergence through love and courage. Sergey and Marina Dyachenko mix dramatic scenes with romance, action and wit, in a style both direct and lyrical. Written with a sure artistic hand, The Scar is the story of a man driven by his own feverish demons to find redemption and the woman who just might save him. 
Egert is a brash, confident member of the elite guards and an egotistical philanderer. But after he kills an innocent student in a duel, a mysterious man known as “The Wanderer” challenges Egert and slashes his face with his sword, leaving Egert with a scar that comes to symbolize his cowardice. Unable to end his suffering by his own hand, Egert embarks on an odyssey to undo the curse and the horrible damage he has caused, which can only be repaired by a painful journey down a long and harrowing path.
Usually, I am not particularly fond of the comparison towards various well-known authors that publishers decide to proclaim on a book. On the other hand, I believe that this time, Tor's bet was right.  Robin Hobb, the novelist behind the Farseer Trilogy is quoted as being a worthy parallel in story structure and I must agree with this statement. Furthermore, after some chapters, I feared having to deal with a protagonist as unlikable as Thomas Covenant from Stephen Donaldson, a story I was not able to finish (my “half-review” of Lord Foul's Bane here). I will refer to it later since I wish to add an essential nuance to the comparison I am making concerning this matter.

Egert is a pretentious young ass who accidentally perpetrates the irrevocable, an act very difficult to forgive.  In a certain way, it is the consequence of his deeds, he simply receives what he deserves, judging from the point of view of one of the characters. From the moment he is cursed, he becomes an entity of insecurity, apprehensive of everything that surrounds him, who decides to seek redemption at all costs, provided that this price does not imply a terror based on harmless elements, which is always the case from there on.  It is at this point that my feelings of resemblance to the work of Donaldson were dissipated.  Even if I find that the premise of the book is overemphasized, I speak here about the cursed situation of Egert, at least he starts by seeking to get rid of it in several manners, creatively or fatally but ultimately quite stoically. He does not remain completely dumb and the action that started it all is not completely conscious or voluntary.

It is not evident to witness and follow the setbacks and adventures, which are not particularly extravagant, of a person under this wasting condition during a whole novel.  The feelings of the young and pitiful captain are at the heart of the account and the complete pallet of possible reactions and state of mind come to pass.  Sergey mentioned that he added a layer of psychology and even of psychiatry to the story.  This element is literally palpable. Doubtlessly, the real interest of The Scar can truly be found in the quest of Egert and all the difficulties he has to cope with.  It is by pondering this aspect that you should decide if this kind of tale is for you.  We are far from an epic account, it is personal, very human and emotional, slightly too much for me in retrospect. I think that the core of the novel is probably from the mind of Marina more than Sergey.  It is all assumptions but the feminine writing is felt all over the narration in the depiction of the characters behaviors.

The book could still be categorized as some sort of sword and sorcery novel but the authors themselves saw it from another perspective:
"[...]  we started with pure fairy-tale, then villainously cheated on the genre and sunk into social fantasy. Then we got tired, shrugged it off and are now writing a good old fantasy under a conventional name All Is Possible for Wizards." 
"[...] Personally, I named our creative method "M-realism". What is it? It is not clearly known. Some may understand it as "meta-realism", others - as "magical"."
Considering this, it is safe to say that it is a cross genre novel defined by romance Fantasy, simple philosophical fiction and magic realism. The Scar is set in a post plague affected world where a chosen few archmages are wielding magic.  When Egert is put aside, the sub plot that is slowly building to create a climax is revealed through a group of fanatics proclaiming the end of the world. Sadly, there are no big surprises or distinctly creative ideas surrounding these storylines.  I found one exception in the character of the Wanderer himself but his story seems to be detailed in other books, he is a mean to an end.

At least, Egert is not the only point of view used to work out the narration.  Toria and her father, the Dean Luayan, add mentally healthier elements to a story significantly encumbered by the exploration of the situation of the cursed young man by the authors. That's were romance comes in and it is approached meticulously and genuinely. Magic, factions intrigue and swordplay are present and they spice things up in a small dose but the world feels a bit empty.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to judge the quality of the writing style of the authors. Did Elinor Huntington make a good work?  I have serious doubts.  Firstly, it seems like someone tried at every opportunity to force beautiful turnings of sentences or use uncommon words to give the prose a higher quality.  Moreover, and I must acknowledge that I am somewhat an abusive user of the comma (that probably comes from my native language), but in this case, it is really a party of comma and everyone is invited.  With regard to these two observations, I would have liked to have the opinion of somebody who read the Russian edition but it is not easy to find.

Moreover, and this is perhaps due to the Advance Uncorrected Proof edition that Tor sent me, certain sentences simply do not make any sense or made me raise an eyebrow. I felt that sometimes we are lost in translation. I hope that this will be corrected since in my case, that made me drop out of the story regularly. Here some examples:
[...] The gray-robed man smiled from under the hood. In his hand - with the tattoo on the wrist - coins tinkled. "Tail, Nutty, be moderately greedy," said the man in a soft voice that made the killer tremble. "I require your assistance."
[...]He stopped in front of the tavern; there is no telling what compelled him to turn toward the wide, well-known door.
And the worst:
[...] Just when Egert became sure that he would not hear another word out of her, the girl shivered and whispered, "And, you know, especially thunder, when it goes off without warning. Ita told me that in our village there was one little girl who was killed dead by thunder...."
Personally, I would not want to live in a world where thunder can kill you...

If you are the kind of reader that sympathize easily with characters even when they are helplessly miserable but with hope for redemption and grander designs, The Scar will appeal to you.  However, if you're looking for a sword and sorcery novel with a touch of Russian influence you probably should look elsewhere, except if you want it to be impregnated with romance and psychology.

Technically, I have to praise the cover, it is simply gorgeous, one of the best I have seen for a long time.  There is no map and the hardcover edition of the book stands at 336 pages.

The Scar review score :

Characterization.............   7 /10
World building...............   7 / 10
Magic system.................   7.5 / 10
Story..............................   7 / 10
Writing...........................   6.5 / 10

Overall (not an average) 7 / 10


Antonakis said...

Oh those examples you posted look like really bad cases of translational mistakes. Either the bulk was done by an automatic translator and then the translator edited most of the mistakes but missed some or the translator really had no idea about the context during certain passages. I don't think I would have the patience to go through a book with such mistakes.

Unknown said...

My copy is somewhere in the mail, destined to drop any day now. I've been looking forward to the read, although translations are always tricky - it's often hard to separate the critique of the novel from that of the translator. Sounds like this one might need some polish yet, but the story sounds strong enough that I think I can overlook the mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I do not read it, but they are not known in Russia as writers with bad writing. For example, well known writer with ugly russian is much more popular Nick Perumov (autor of LOTR funfic "Ring of darkness"). Certanly you must blame translator.

In Russia translations from english are often very bad, Martin works are translated with many mistakes and very far from original, so people have to read in english, or unoficial translation.

Mark K said...

Love your site and looking forward to reading through your reviews :)

I agree 100% regarding th artwork for that book cover, brilliant! But it does remind me of an artist who works for ANet on th Guild Wars games - sorry, can't recall his name? But if you go to, I''m sure you'll see what I mean.


Mark aka EvilDM

Phil said...

@Mark: Yes I know who you'll talking about it's Kekai Kotaki, actually along Micheal Komarck it's one my favorite artist and I frequently post about his covers :)

Anonymous said...

[...] Just when Egert became sure that he would not hear another word out of her, the girl shivered and whispered, "And, you know, especially thunder, when it goes off without warning. Ita told me that in our village there was one little girl who was killed dead by thunder...."

It is almost a literal translation of the country girl who does not know the principles of natural phenomena.

Russian version:
>>>Когда Эгерт уверился, что не услышит от неё более ни слова, девушка вздрогнула и прошептала:
— И, знаете, особенно… Грома… Как бабахнет… Ита рассказывала, у них в селе одну девчонку громом убило насмерть…
(use ;)

Thanks for the revue, and sorry me my English, Kraft.

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