Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe

Reviewer: Naomi Hinchen

Author: James M. Ward

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2010-11-08

Publisher: Tor Books

The jacket flap describes this book as Hornblower meets Harry Potter.
I suppose that's sort of true, insofar as there are naval battles and
a young wizard learns to use his magic. Personally, I was hoping for
something like the Temeraire series, but suffice it to say, James Ward
is no Naomi Novik.

Which is a pity, because the trappings of Ward's world are pretty
cool. There are ships on the backs of giant telepathic dragons! The
enemy country has evil shapeshifters! Unfortunately, the rest of the
book doesn't live up to the nifty scenery. A brief enumeration of the
author's writing sins:

* The somewhat stilted tone of the writing. This was the one that got
under my skin from the very beginning. I can read and enjoy books
that, in hindsight, aren't all that great, but not when the author's
style bogs me down on every page.

* Telling and not showing. Oh, so much telling and not showing.

* Mary Suism. The main character has awesome and really rare magical
powers, can talk to dragons, has demon blood in him, gets loads of
unique magic items, is good at everything, is popular with all the
likable characters, has a famously heroic dead father, etc. This is
only slightly mitigated by his using his rare magical powers to do
something stupid that gets everyone in trouble.

* In a moment of crisis, the main character suddenly remembers that
all this time he's had a magic pixie wish he can use to save
everyone. Yes, a magic pixie wish. No, this had never been
mentioned before. I wish I were making this up.

* Not introducing actual plot until halfway through the book. The
first half is mostly long scenes of infodump, as Halcyon learns
about magic, his naval duties, dragonships, etc. Even the
foreshadowing takes its sweet time showing up.

* When a book is about a midshipwizard being trained, the author
should know how the training system works. Other midshipwizards who
have been on the ship longer should not be learning everything for
the first time to make the protagonist look good. Anyone trained at
the midshipwizard academy (especially anyone from a large family of
famous naval wizards) should not be allowed to graduate ignorant of
both the fundamentals of serving aboard a ship and how to avoid
causing life-threatening magical disasters. Either ship duty is
part of the learning experience, in which case they shouldn't be
sailing into a war zone, or these kids who are still picking up the
basics are considered fully-trained officers, which raises the
question of how they haven't yet lost the war.

Honestly, the best I can say about this book is that the setting could
give rise to some interesting fanfic. I didn't much care about the
characters, the plot didn't show up for ages, and even cool
dragonships can only go so far to make a book entertaining. I suppose
it's possible that the sequel is better plotted, now that a lot of the
infodump is out of the way, but given my dislike of Ward's writing
style, I'm not terribly inclined to find out. In other hands, this
could have been a fun book---I'd love to see what Brian Jacques, with
his well-known love of nautical tales, would have made of it. As it
is, it was a disappointment.