I don't know if Matthew Woodring Stover is hired to write what he's best known for, or if he's simply unwilling or incapable of writing any other way.
This is Test of Metal, a book I'd have passed over at approximately mach 3 if it weren't written by Matthew Woodring Stover, who is easily my all-time favorite author. It's series fiction for the Magic: The Gathering tie-in novels. I have little enough knowledge of the setting or characters, or the events going on around them. I know it's about wizards, and that the setting involves multiple dimensions in some fashion I'm still not clear on. I've played the card game, but the jumbled pieces of setting you get from the cards aren't terribly elucidating. This book does a phenomenal job of exposing what plot elements from previous books matter to the plot of this story, and that made it extremely comfortable to jump into, and that includes the properties of the magical ore that the plot hinges on, Etherium.
This is where the book started feeling familiar.
I might be in a unique perspective, since I've read every book of MWS's except for the God of War novelization, but when Etherium was described, it reminded me too entirely of the malleable, widely applicable crystaline material from the planet in Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor. Its ability to respond to the will of the one molding it, and to be applied to such a wide variety of tasks were traits they both seemed to share, as well as part of the action taking place in a location consisting almost entirely of that material.
Anyway, we meet our protagonist, Tezzaret, an artificer wizard and greatest known worker of the Etherium ore. We're really introduced to his character through the discussion of his childhood, when his father was abusive and his mother was killed by an unjust society. Tezzaret's history reminds me strongly of Hari and Duncan Michaelson, the main character of MWS's Acts of Caine series and his father and like the comparison between Etherium and the Star Wars mineral, I couldn't shake this impression.
It comes back to the question of whether MWS hijacked an existing set of characters and molded them into the shape they needed to be in to tell an MWS story or if he was hired to write an MWS story, and he did so. I'm going to stress again, I don't know these characters, but it's hard to believe a coincidence that every character has reasons to act out of character, and half of them get called out on how strangely they're behaving.
There are weaknesses in the setting which I hesitate to lay at the feet of either Stover or Magic: The Gathering alone.
Magic and Etherium in particular have abilities far beyond what seems reasonable, even within a fantastical setting; without the limitations one might expect of them.
Etherium is a magical, mutable ore which can be constructed into magical items with special properties ostensibly springing from their engineering and design, yet Tezzerat can dynamically reshape form and function of this metal widely using only his will, making hoverbikes into suits of armor basically on the fly, or changing the function of a device he can't even see and which is miles away at the time with only his brain. Other times, Tezzerat is capable of reproducing tricks another wizard, a noted master of Telepathy, is known and respected for, and it's never said that Tezzerat is also adept at Telepathy, simply that Etherium was utilized in some way.
Too many things take place under the auspices of being magic. When it's insufficient to say, "A wizard did it" as the handwaved explanation for an action, I guess the next step up is just to say, "A wizard did it with the help of Etherium." At a certain point, the application of Etherium ceased to be an explanation and became an excuse.
MWS is famous for his crazy-brutal and engaging fight scenes. However, I think he should primarily be lauded for his excellent plot weaving even over his fights. While the story gets a little lost near the end when it decides to be be about time travel and quantum paradoxes, it constantly delivers, and flows together very nicely. You're never given more than you want of any one thing or any one perspective. MWS's trademark of shifting between first and third perspectives shows up, and even slips into second person very briefly. While I understand others complain about this, I love it. It's really unique and gives chapters a lot of freedom to express different ideas and concepts.
Every scene is climactic and exciting, but never so much that it overshadows the next scene, all the way to the end. The fight scenes DO continue to be awesome, in spite of less kung-fu than you'd normally see in one of his books.
Really, the only places this falls down are with the characters, who are less compelling versions of other MWS characters. Also, the outcome/epilogue was hugely frustrating in a very spoilerrific way. Normally, I might say these shortcomings are just inherent to Magic: The Gathering mandated stories, but considering the amazing story he mined out of the absolute shitstorm of Star Wars: Episode 3 for his novelization, I know MWS can do much more with far less.
Read this book if you're already a fan of Matthew Woodring Stover like me, or if you're following the game and its book series already. Otherwise, read the far superior Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle, Caine Black Knife novels by MWS instead.
So, I suppose I should introduce myself. This is Bret. I criticize everything harshly. I'm going to start my own blog called Just Lie Back and Think of England: Everything you think is good is actually bad; where I'll primarily review movies, but sometimes TV shows or other random things. I'm planning to focus on the things which are popular despite sucking, like Heroes season 1 or Christopher Nolan movies. Sorry if this review was overly long, meandering or too specific, but that's just how I roll.