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Spirits of the Plains Review by Daniel Matuzas

By / August 22, 2016 / no comments

Spirit of the Plains is a book by Indie author Daniel Matuzas, and the first book in what looks to be a series. It’s a YA fantasy seemingly inspired by Native American tribal plains culture — something you don’t normally see in traditional fantasy, which almost always borrows from Medieval Europe.

The story follows the lives (and often separate stories) of a Chief and his sons: Tangle, Wolf, and Wing.

Each son has a unique place in this world; Wolf is air to his father’s position as chief of the tribe, Wing  has the secret ability to control spirits, an ability that has up until this point only been the purview of female Shamans; and Tangle is the less gifted, somewhat resentful brother. The main narrative focus is the second son Wing.

Each brother has a different story — one that often takes place separate from the other brothers until they weave back into the same thread by the end of the novel. It’s a rather complex story with the novel, and over its 500 or so pages, tries to densely pack a bundle of themes between each cover: there’s a coming of age, there’s betrayal, there’s inter-tribal conflicts, there’s love, there’s treachery, there’s plot twists, and there’s sentient baboons. Yes, baboons.

For a YA novel, there’s a good deal more grit than normal YA fantasy; what starts off as a nice light read at the beginning soon descends to a more serious, darker, and gritty read, with each character having passed through the fires of tribulation by the end of the tale.

The premise starts off promising with some interesting initial world building and a unique native american inspired plains setting; however, clunky writing and a meandering plot derail the story part way through the telling of it.

What I Liked

The unique setting, at least in theory, is interesting in the beginning of the novel. Native American culture is one of the least-explored areas of fantasy; occasionally, you do see a few works about these cultures crop up here and there in the fantasy marketplace, but by and large, the number Native American inspired fantasy books available on the market is underwhelming.

The author puts in a solid attempt at creating a web of conflicting interests between the characters. Everyone has their own motivations for doing things, and some of the bad choices characters make are understandable and empathetic to the reader; good people forced to do bad things for good reasons (or simply tricked into doing them). That author does a good job at building up his character motivations to the point where some of the major events that happen are believably motivated.

It is the complex web of betrayal and tribal politics going on in the novel which become the strong point of the novel. I also found the author’s willingness to pack serious themes — and darker ones at that — into the novel refreshing. There’s darkness to this tale that those who want a more light-hearted read may shy away from. Bad things can and do happen to the characters.

There is a good attempt at some initial world building here, though the world building focuses more on the micro rather than the macro. Very little did I get a sense of the overall setting or world at large. Most of the ‘world building’ as it was, seemed to focus not on the setting but on developing who the characters were and their relationships to each other. I like to call this ‘people building’ rather than ‘world building.’ The novel is heavy on people building, but less so on actual world building.

Credit given to the author for some of the unpredictability woven into the plot threads; stuff happens out of the blue that you don’t expect, shaking up the momentum of the story and redirecting the plot to new areas. This keeps you on your toes. The plot moves along at a fairly fast past, given the length of the novel. Stuff happens, characters move forward, events — major and minor — occur; this is not a book where the characters all sit around and do nothing.

What I Didn’t Like

The problem with this novel is the writing: it’s often clunky, wordy, full of run-on sentences and frankly, interferes with the story telling. I know some leeway must be given as this is indie fantasy. However, there are plenty of well-written indie fantasy books on the market right now.

This, unfortunately, was not one of them.

First off, I found the word choices, character names, and the dialogue do little to convey to the reader the feeling that these characters are living primitive lives in a tribal setting. Frankly, the author writes about his characters (and the way they speak to each other) like he’s writing about a bunch of modern high school kids going camping.

The character naming scheme is decidedly odd. The author opts for a distinctive tribal plains people feel by giving many of the characters Native American-inspired names like Wing, Spring, Greywind, Stone, and The Great Spirit. Yet, the author also readily throws out modern American names like Greg, Ben, John, and Garth into the native american world, undermining the continuity of the setting.

The eclectic world building choices extend past the weird naming scheme, unfortunately. For example, the story includes tribe of sentient baboons leads by a baboon who learns how humans arrange their social structure and successfully applies it to his baboon clan. Given as the author tries hard for a native american plains fantasy world, tribes of sentient baboons showing up into the story did not maintain the continuity of the setting. While technically, fantasy is celebrated for its narrative freedom, some rules do apply when world building, if only to sell the geographic location of the fantasy world being built as realistic to the reader, or at least to convince us through the strong world building why the implausible is plausible. In this regard, Spirits of the Plains does a poor job of it.

The overall world-building is lacking, including the magic system. I was never very clear how the magic system worked, other than the characters ordering spirits around (which in effect operate as some unseen magical force in practice). There’s very little in the way of delineated rules of magic. The characters just wish their spirits to do something and it happens. Many readers might want a more sophisticated level of magic.

The world at large is pretty much limited to a plains setting; there are no real distinctions between cultural groups, between landscapes, or even between the different characters. This is not necessary leveled as a critique, as the novel makes no claims at being a grand epic fantasy. However, even though the milieu present is limited to a few reasonably small areas and a few different tribes, the areas and people described are still mostly more of the same thing. I felt more could have been done to fill out the world and accentuate the differences between tribes, of which the author does little to differentiate.

There was also a struggle to pull all the different narrative threads together into a workable flow. The problem is that there’s just too many POV’s and disparate story threads for the author to organize into a strong cohesive story, given his experience and level of writing craft. There’s at least 6 or more characters to keep track of, even if the narrative energy is mostly devoted to only a couple of those characters. In the hands of an experienced writer, pulling of a complex plot with a large cast of characters is possible; less so for a new writer still in the learning stages of their craft. The number of plot threads made reading the book — and keeping the story flow moving along — challenging.

The Final Word

While I’m not reviewing this novel from the point of a copy editor, I did find as I reader, that the poor prose interfered with the story to the point of annoyance.

Many of the sentences are poorly constructed, full of long run on sentences, clunky descriptions, and awkward dialogue constructions between characters. There were a lot of long, wandering descriptions, which was mostly how the novel dictated the characters’ thoughts and actions. The novel was mostly told by telling the reader how characters feel and what they want to do, rather than actually showing you through movement and action.

I felt this novel was more of second draft than a final edit. A good portion of the novel could be edited away which would sharpen the plot, reduce the page count, and better organize the plot. The novel would have been improved significantly had this been the case.

Should You Read It?

Overall, the initial concept is a good one: native peoples living in a pseudo American west, struggling for local area control, while tapping into a magical spirit world to support their tribal conflicts over resources and land. There’s a lot you can do with an open concept like this. And Daniel Matuzas has the glint of a good potential tale in the making with his story.

The author clearly has a lot of passion for his world and characters, and it does show. There’s a good deal of effort put into writing a more complex plot about loyalty, honor, love, and betrayal. There are even some pretty big plot twists thrown in — and part of the story takes a darker turn part way through. And the separate stories of each brother, their trials and tribulations, success and failures, can be interesting to read about, even if the author struggles mightily to pull all disparate story threads into a cohesive whole.

Unfortunately, the wordy prose, the unorganized plot, the author’s habit of telling the story passively rather than through character actions — and the lack of a good edit — subvert much of that book’s potential. There was also a missed opportunity in the world building; much more could have been done to better convey a sense of place, time, and unique culture, which I found mostly monotone in flavor.

The author’s initial ideas and setting were interesting, but the lack of editing, lack of organization, and poorly constructed sentences make for a difficult read.

For all the faults, there is a decent story in Spirits of the Plains and good — if not always successful — attempt to portray a wide gamut of challenging situations to overcome by the characters. Some more forgiving readers still might enjoy this novel if they are willing to push past these flaws, or you are really hungering for a pseudo native american style fantasy; however, some of the more picky readers might find this one a tough push to finish.

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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