I should confess that, while I’m not much of an art person, the cover for The Pilgrims totally sold me on the book. When Tor sent an email offering review copies of a few books, I was skeptical of picking up another fantasy. (I’m trying to keep a more manageable TBR pile for the F end of SFF.) Then I saw the cover, with a stunning white castle towering over the landscape, and knew I’d have to read this one just to see if the book lived up to the artwork.
To be honest, I normally wouldn’t write a post about The Pilgrims until I was further into the series. By itself, the book doesn’t lend itself to any sort of assessment. The first book in a new series usually concerns itself mainly with world building and character introduction, but authors generally try to create and wrap up some sort of narrative arc, even if the point of the initial story is to lead into the bigger, series-spanning plot. The Pilgrims doesn’t act like the first book of a series, more like the first part of the first book of a series. It ends without any resolution whatsoever. I can’t even call it a cliffhanger, more of just an abrupt stop. Needless to say, this is not conducive to pithy and incisive commentary. I did, however, request this review copy with a promise to write about it, so write I will! (Great sighs of relief echo throughout Tor headquarters at this announcement.)
Let’s start with things I enjoyed about the book. Elliot’s world building starts off conventional, but rapidly goes in unexpected directions. Yes, there are the usual evil wizards to slay, naughty emperors, lithe maidens with bows, and mercenaries with tormented pasts, but they are operating in a world that hints of greater depth. The secret history with dragons is neat if not wholly original, the political relationships between various cities show promise, and certain stranger aspects of the world may blossom into something truly unique in later volumes. I have high hopes. I am also intrigued by Elliot’s magic system. No more flowing, white beards and pointy hats, these mages have curly horns and chew on dirt and shrubs to reduce the heat buildup caused by excessive magic use. (I guess they haven’t learned about heat sinks or fins to increase radiating surface area.) Fun stuff. Nothing like a shaggy, ram-headed beast trailing smoke as he flies across the sky.
For things I’m less crazy about, the bit about people from our world dropping into fantasy land tops the list. That’s not a plot device I get excited about anymore, since it was beaten to death back in the 80s. The characters, to their credit, are self-aware enough to see what’s going on; one is convinced he’s going to save the day, even though absolutely nothing about him makes me think that he can. I would like to see an author drop people from our world into a kingdom in crisis, then have them fail, or just be irrelevant. Much more entertaining than the usual. Elliot is just vague enough about things to keep me guessing though, so there is hope for an amusing twist later in the series.
Beyond that, the only serious knock on the book is the way it finishes. The plot arcs in one direction for most of the book, then lurches suddenly in a new one about 40 pages from the end, then everything just sort of stops. I am baffled what might happen next. This is nothing that ruins the book for me, but I might caution people to hold off reading until the second volume is out. I expect that it will make more sense then, but would have preferred a smoother transition.
In spite of our boring heroes and the confusing final act, I will be reading the next book as soon as it is available. It’s possible that things could backslide into mediocrity, but I think Elliot is going to come through with exciting stuff. He’d better, since he has this brilliant cover image to live up to.