Book Review 2010 #3: Servant of a Dark God

After the heat I generated on LJ and my facebook regarding politics, here we will have an entry that few will read, almost no one will comment on, and certainly will generate no fire or sizzle. A book review!

Disclaimer: I received this book via the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
John Brown’s Servant of a Dark God is a debut fantasy novel that spoils some of its very good elements with some frankly clumsy mistakes and misccues.
The fantasy world Brown posits a hierarchy of magical beings of which mankind sits at the bottom (although there are Gnostic hints this was once not the case) Magical power and talent is tightly and strictly controlled, and those who dare to use such magic are accused of “Slethery”, that is to say, witchcraft. And yet there are those who practice and cultivate such arts in secret, both human and inhuman.
Servant of a Dark God focuses on a family in a land recently conquered by overseas invaders, and the dynamics of the rights of the overlord conquerors versus the native population adds to the complexity and depth of the world Brown has created. Characters have confused, divided and conflicting loyalties that shows a depth that many writers with far more experience than Brown never learn or bother to give to their characters and worlds. The magic and arcane aspects of the universe are a bit of a “jump in the deep end”, but Brown’s ideas are fresh and relatively unique and I liked learning more and more about how it actually worked.
Also, unlike the usual epic fantasy, this novel stays within and provides detail for a relatively narrow geographic area. There was no 1000 mile walks across the countryside. This is a local story, which is a nice change of pace from the usual novels of this type.
I would have highly enjoyed this novel, with all of these interesting elements, except for two major missteps.
First of all, the main character, Talen, was not one drawn well enough to be engaging and interesting enough for my taste. Brown manages to characterize and develop the secondary characters in a much better fashion than Talen, but since this is Talen’s story, he gets the lion’s share of the action and story. Worse, his story takes far too long to develop. It was a rough slog in the first third of the book, when one of the major mysteries of the novel was who stole Talen’s work pants. I stuck it out, and matters improved, but my taste for Talen as a character was permanently ruined by a very weak opening.
Second, Brown is a little too complex and clever for his own good. The obfuscation in the novel can be thick and heavy, and while any writer must balance infodump with telling the reader nothing, I think Brown withheld too much information at certain points, to the determent of the narrative. While puzzling out some of this was a positive to reading the novel, in some cases, it only served as a millstone to the reader.
This book very nearly failed the “100 page test.” By contrast, the last 100 pages of the novel were very good.
Overall, though, like some of the best from Sanderson, or Drake, the fantasy here is not of the cookie-cutter epic fantasy type that is eptiomized in the Tough Guide to Fantasyland. I am unsure if I want to continue with subsequent novels in the series, due to not warming up to Talen as a character, but I think I would be inclined to read other novels by this author otherwise in the future.