Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Baker's Boy

Written by Joe the Revelator

I was a bit dubious about the Baker’s Boy, the first in the Book of Words trilogy by J.V. Jones. It became one of those recommendations that I always intend on reading but never come across a copy. I finally found it nestled in the dark recesses of the bookstore’s used shelf, stacked sideways instead of upright so the newer novels would have more room. All three books were pristine, not a crack or bend on them, and I paid five dollars for the entire marked-down series.

I know not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. It’s part of the discovery, the thrill of poking through piles of novels, selecting one to take home, and realizing a few pages into it whether you’ve found gems or dross. The cover art was not encouraging. It featured a pair of teens lurking through a dungeon, their features weirdly out of proportion, and the characters portrayed didn’t even match the descriptions in the book. The style looked old and dated, vaguely Hobbit-cartoon-esque.

Humble Beginnings

The story starts with a modest young man of mysterious birth, a baker’s apprentice whose personality is as bland as his name; Jack. His coming has been prophesized and there is a strong sense of destiny surrounding him, though his bastard birth and orphaned status make him an easy target for abuse and ridicule.

Suddenly, like the onset of puberty, Jack discovers his potential for magic when he reverses the effects of time on a batch of burnt bread loaves. For fear of being stoned to death by the superstitious castle staff, he flees his old life for a new beginning.

If you’ve read David Eddings or Robert Jordan, or any generic fantasy, this book will give you a strong sense of déjà-vu. It feels like J.V. Jones spun a wheel to decide her main character. Jack’s reactions and dialogues are flat and lack distinction. I can’t tell if he’s supposed to sound naive or innocent, or maybe just slow. In contrast, the other characters are lively and interesting, and although they don’t start off particularly deep, the author does a good job of fleshing them out as she goes along. Her villains are especially intense, and she uses anatomical lingo to detail their evil deeds. It may also be worth noting that Jones writes her females as duplicitous and sharp-tongued, even Jack’s love interest, who doesn’t appear squeamish about leaving him behind to save her own skin.

The story may be choppy at first and difficult to follow. It switches between one of a dozen perspectives every few pages; frequent enough to leave you feeling like you haven’t absorbed the situation before you’re plunged into another. Once you grow fond of a character or intrigued by the events that happen, the scene shifts before you’re satiated. The pace is like a soap opera on speed.

Leave Your Orcs At Home

The struggles of the protagonists are more about personal growth and overcoming one’s station in life than battling monsters. There are no evil beasts or wicked ogres. The baddies are all very human, and there’s an abundance of men and women willing to rape, murder, and steal to get ahead. The world of the Baker’s Boy is populated by the amoral, which makes the selfless characters sparkle all the more.

The author’s conservative use of magic is a breath of fresh air in my opinion. Power, she describes, comes from within oneself, so magic must be a controlled effort. Blasting an assassin with a spray of fire nearly taxes one of the sorcerers to death, exhausting him into unconsciousness. Weaponry is treated in a similar way; moderate and realistic. The heroes aren’t swinging swords as big as lampposts, sending fireballs and lightning bolts in every direction. Much of the fighting is done with knives, bows, or short swords.

Wouldst Thou?

My recommendation for this book is a bit double-edged with a lot of ‘If’s involved. If you happen to find a copy at your local bookstore or on a friend’s shelf, and if you’re ready to plod past a few hundred pages while you adjust to the rapid-fire writing style, and if you plan on reading the sequel as well, read this. I’m more than halfway through the second book in the series and I can’t put it down.

So; if only to get past the hump, to more involving stories by J.V. Jones, take a crack at The Baker’s Boy.

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