Author: Troy Denning
Published: September 1995
This review took a while to finish because The Titan of Twilight was a tough book to get started on. When I read a good novel — or even an okay novel — I’m happy to sing its praises. When I read something tooth-grindingly awful, I plow through it because I know I’ll have interesting things to say about it and I’m looking forward to writing them down in a review. But then there are the rare middling books, the ones that aren’t good enough to actually enjoy but not bad enough to cause me pain. They’re the unflavoured rice cakes of fiction: you’re technically eating something, but it doesn’t leave any impression. I found this trilogy’s previous two novels mediocre — a C– and a C+, respectively — and by this point neither the setting nor the characters nor the trilogy’s central conflict have been interesting enough to draw me back in for the finale. So I started off feeling as if I was contractually obliged to force myself to eat a stack of plain rice cakes… but fortunately for me, this novel has turned out to be more terrible than its bland predecessors. Let’s dissect it and find out why!
I’ll be honest: I loathe this plot. The giants have a prophecy that Brianna, the queen of Hartsvale, is going to have a giant baby who will restore their long-fallen kingdom, so they’ve spent the last several years trying to help that prophecy along by attempting to get her pregnant with giant babies. In this book’s very first scene, we’re told that they finally succeeded; the disguised ettin Prince Arlien from the last book apparently date-raped her while she was under his magical thrall and gave her a weird giant monster fetus who’s been gestating for the past three years. That’s a hell of a way to start the novel. Denning has been doing a terrible job handling the only significant female character in the entire trilogy so far — she’s only ever been an irrational jerk, a victim, or a plot device, but never a well-developed character. And now we’re kicking off the conclusion with this Rosemary’s Baby-style plot where she’s offhandedly victimized and demoted to the status of a breeding machine for the villain. The author could not have more effectively killed my enthusiasm for the rest of the book if he’d deliberately tried.
Everything about this development feels gross and exploitative. It’s not impossible to do this plot well; Rosemary’s Baby gets away with it by being self-aware and having an interesting subtext about gender issues, where you can read it as a feminist critique of women’s subservience. This, on the other hand, reads more like the author saw Rosemary’s Baby on late-night television at some point and thought “Hey, I could do a demon baby story too. That would be cool.”
And again, it’s a perfect example of the problem I discussed in my review of The Giant Among Us: when you as a reader know more than the characters, it’s actively irritating to watch them not figure things out. Let’s set aside for the moment the inherent awfulness of the concept. If we didn’t know anything more than the characters did about the baby, we’d be asking ourselves on every page “Is it actually Tavis’ kid, or is it some kind of monster? What’s going to come out of Brianna?”, which would make for a source of interesting tension. Instead the villain explains everything to the reader in an aside at the very beginning of the book, so now there’s nothing for us to do except be frustrated while the characters very slowly figure out what’s going on.
And when I say “very slowly,” I mean very, very slowly, because it’s remarkable how bad all of the characters are at putting two and two together. The baby is gigantic, so large that she can barely move. It’s been in there for three years. Nobody can figure out why there’s a prophecy that she’ll have twins when there’s only one baby in there. Yet despite all this, everyone is blithely going about their normal business and saying “yup, that sure is Tavis’ kid.” Did everyone in the kingdom forget the part where she was being mind-controlled by an evil two-headed ettin? How is this not obvious to them?
Anyhow, a bunch of firbolgs want to kill the baby because they have a prophecy about it being a kingdom-destroying monster, so the first half of the book is all about Brianna trying to hide herself and her new baby from their relentless pursuit. Thing is, they’re totally right! Kaedlaw, the baby, is a weird monster thing that doesn’t get any positive characterization or good bonding moments with anyone, so why should I be rooting for his survival? Hell, I was cheering for the firbolgs the entire time — if they’d killed Kaedlaw they’d have wrecked the giants’ prophecy, the whole kingdom would have been better off, and we could have short-circuited a lot of tedious plot. Instead, everyone wanders around a bunch of endless mineshafts for chapter after chapter. No setting details, no social interactions, no downtime… just running around tunnels, fighting lots of giant-kin, and watching scores of Brianna’s royal guards die in increasingly splattery ways.
(Incidentally, the childbirth scene was clearly written by a man who has no personal experience with having living humans extracted from his own body. Brianna is able to hold a normal conversation while undergoing an improvised anaesthetic-free Caesarean section for a massive baby the size of a toddler. She seems unconcerned about having a huge hole in her abdomen and starts tending to the baby while she’s still bisected. I’ve never had amateur surgery before, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it would go.)
Around the midpoint, we reiterate the plot of The Giant Among Us for a while: Brianna and her retinue are trapped in a castle that’s under siege by giants. Suddenly, Basil the verbeeg magician shows up and announces that he’s discovered the location of a magical artifact that will solve everyone’s problems. We didn’t know that he was looking for it and we don’t know what it does, but apparently it’s a Big Deal that we’ve never heard of before. It’s a magic axe called Sky Cleaver, but the author might as well have just named it Ass Pull. Then the titan Lanaxis puts a premature end to the siege by picking up the entire tower that Brianna and her baby are in and wandering off with it. She spends the rest of the book as a kidnapped damsel in distress, making the occasional unsuccessful escape attempt but never succeeding at anything.
By this point there have been lots of exciting battle scenes and dramatic action setpieces, but they just leave me tired. As a reader, once you think the Eight Deadly Words — “I don’t care what happens to these people” — there’s no recovering from that. Without a connection to the characters, all the big action sequences in the world can never be more than empty sound and fury.
So Tavis, Basil, and some giant-kin go after her. They meet some hilariously depressed storm giants who reminded me of the morose hippie Neil from The Young Ones — all melancholy and self-pitying and “it doesn’t matter what I do, might as well die.” Not exactly evoking the majesty of the kings of giants there, mate. After that, they take a side trip to find the magic plot-solving artifact. Sky Cleaver is basically Tolkien’s One Ring in the form of a weapon, constantly exerting a mind-altering temptation on everyone nearby to use its power and lose one’s soul in the process. Tavis has to resist the axe’s pull while defending it from his jealous, paranoid giant allies and having his life force drained to fuel its powers. It’s the only good character development Tavis gets, and one of the few genuinely interesting situations in the book.
Tavis has a final confrontation with Lanaxis to rescue his wife and son. He doesn’t defeat the final boss; a god appears and tells the villain off, then cures Tavis of all the damage he accumulated from using Sky Cleaver. If you’ve read Denning’s short story from Realms of Infamy then it doesn’t come entirely out of nowhere, since that tells you this god’s backstory and his beef with Lanaxis, but if you haven’t then it’ll be a deus ex machina. Either way, it’s somewhat unsatisfying to not have the heroes be directly responsible for the climax of the trilogy.
Even after three books, I feel like I have no idea who Tavis is. He seems like an automaton: his motivation is that he’s unfailingly honorable and sworn to protect the queen, but we very rarely see his emotions during his point of view scenes and he doesn’t get many interesting character interactions with others. He apparently still loves Brianna after three years of marriage, but we don’t get any scenes between them that show why — they’re still stiff and formal together, without any of the natural interaction and empathy for each other that you’d expect people in a romantic relationship to have. Apart from the magic axe stuff, which worked fairly well, his internal monologue boils down to gritting his teeth and saying “I’m sworn to protect Brianna, so I won’t give up” a lot. In place of character development, the author makes him suffer constantly: broken bones, hypothermia, head injuries, savaged by violent birds, hand injuries from mountain-climbing, and so on, which becomes monotonous quickly. But what is he feeling? Why is he feeling it? How does he demonstrate those feelings? So many unanswered questions.
(As an aside, why are people frequently referring to Tavis with titles like “lord scout” and “lord high scout”? I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing that exists. Given that scouting is a skilled occupation for commoners, it’d be like calling someone today a “lord high plumber” or “most exalted electrician.”)
Even so, Tavis still loses handily to Brianna for the title of “worst-handled character in this trilogy.” She comes off as petulant, ruthless, and somewhat dense. She’s the last person in the world to figure out that Kaedlaw is the ettin’s child, she’s dismissive and rude to everyone who doesn’t agree with her, and she spends most of the book helpless and being carried around by someone or other. If she has no agency, rarely succeeds at anything, and demonstrates a fairly unpleasant personality, then what’s supposed to make me care or feel sympathetic towards her? Even stranger, she still doesn’t seem to trust Tavis any more than she did in The Ogre’s Pact, despite being married to him for years. Every time they disagree she lashes out angrily, instead of assuming that her husband is a basically decent person with a functioning brain in his head and trying to understand his point of view. Less than halfway through the book, I was heartily sick of her.
Kaedlaw, Brianna’s monster baby, seems like a missed opportunity. It’s mystifying that even though the plot revolves around this creature, he’s just treated like your standard macguffin: a parcel that’s passed around to keep it away from the bad guys. When he does get moments of attention, they almost exclusively focus on how ugly and scary he is. If I were to rank every baby in fiction by how sympathetically they’re portrayed, Kaedlaw would rank just ever so slightly above the keening fetus-beast from Eraserhead. Problem is, you can’t have it both ways — the author describes the child in horror-movie terms to ratchet up the tension, but then expects the reader to become emotionally invested in him and want him to survive, and these two ideas actively undermine each other.
The trilogy’s main villain, the titular Titan of Twilight, turns out to be fairly dull. There’s good potential in his backstory: he’s an immortal living in an eternal prison as penalty for murdering his family, and leaving his prison means giving up his immortality forever. But most of this backstory is delivered through ponderously written soliloquies where he narrates his history and the details of his scheme directly to the reader.
My skin, it does burn beneath the fiery light; in my joints there flares such a sweltering ache I swear my marrow will boil. Thus does Lanaxis the Chosen, Maker of Emperors, greet golden dawn: racked with fever, so weak and anguished that he would lie upon the stone floor next to mighty Kaedlaw and roar his pain.
“My skin, it does burn”? Oof. His interactions with other characters are mostly just threats or portentous pronouncements, and he spends much of the novel schlepping a tower around the tundra. There’s good material for a Greek tragedy in here, especially at the end when he gets his dreams crushed, but there’s not enough of a fleshed-out character there for the tragic elements to properly attach to. If he’d gotten more real interactions with other characters to give him an emotional arc, rather than just the occasional “talk to the camera” scene, and if his motivations had gotten more time and attention, this could have worked.
Avner, Tavis’s young protégé, was the heart of the previous books — not the comic relief, per se, but one of the only characters who brought some animation and joie de vivre to the otherwise po-faced proceedings. So of course he gets suddenly killed off midway through, failing in his final mission when he’s speared by a random giant-kin. It’s supposed to be a dramatic moment that gives Tavis and Brianna more opportunities for character development, but trying to develop the characters I don’t care about by killing off the characters I like is highly counter-productive.
The Titan of Twilight departs from its predecessors by trying to work some horror elements into its epic fantasy. You’ve got the pregnancy played for horrific effect, a creepy demon baby, hundreds of people dying on-screen in gruesome ways, Tavis’ gradual deterioration from using Sky Cleaver, et cetera. It’s an entirely plausible direction for a fantasy novel, but it’s not handled well enough to grip the reader by the throat and genuinely scare them. As I’ve already mentioned, the pregnancy stuff feels like exploitative schlock. We don’t particularly care about any of the characters who meet messy ends; most are just nameless mooks of one sort or another, so there’s no reason for the reader to get upset about their fate. Tavis’ self-sacrifice is undone by a god at the end of the book, so it doesn’t feel like it had any consequences. But horror is all about the grisly consequences; you can’t make it work without them.
The writing is noticeably worse here than in the previous two books. There were several scenes where I found it quite hard to visualize the scenery and how the characters moved around within it, and my understanding was sometimes actively impeded by purple prose loaded with overwrought metaphors. For example:
The first defender [yet another epithet for Tavis] opened his eyes, and his mind turned inside out. The blackness through which he had been falling was suddenly inside his head, and Brianna’s voice yielded to the wailing wind. […] His head hurt most of all. A swirling brown fog had seeped up from some rank place to fill it with caustic fetor and raw, aching pain.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on here, but I think it’s the clumsiest way I’ve ever seen someone express the concept of “He woke up and his head hurt.”
The diction is similarly affected, pulling out lots of rare words like “graupel” and “damson” and “inselberg.” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I can understand using graupel, for instance, since there’s not really another word in English that expresses that particular consistency between snow and hail. But damson? English has plenty of words for “purple” without unearthing that particular archaism, so it feels like the author was relying on his thesaurus to make things sound fancy.
What could have saved this novel? Not a damned thing, probably. Once the previous two books failed to set up the setting, the characters, or the trilogy’s central conflict, The Titan of Twilight was faced with an insurmountable challenge. What’s Ostoria? What does it mean to everyone? Would it be a good thing or a bad thing if the giants got their kingdom back? If it would be a bad thing for Hartsvale, why not show me more of the place — not just empty tundra and forests — so that I care what happens to it?
And most of all, the trilogy revolves around Tavis and Brianna, but she’s a jerk and he’s a robot. I took so long to pick up this book because nothing in the past two books made me excited to see the end of their story. They feel like the skeletons of characters, where the author wrote a character profile but didn’t stop to flesh them out. What are their backstories, and how do those backstories affect their feelings and decisions? (They don’t.) What do their interactions show us about their characters? (That they don’t get along, even though the author tells us that they do.) What do they want? (Each other, I guess?) Why do they want it? (Because we wouldn’t have a plot otherwise.)
The characters are the beating heart of a story. You can put good characters in a nonsensical plot and still come up with a compelling story, but if all you’ve got is cardboard characters then the best plot in the world won’t save you. I wasn’t particularly interested in these people after The Ogre’s Pact, and by this point I’m well tired of them. That’s the fundamental failure of this trilogy — without that beating heart it’s just the corpse of a story, and by the third book it’s starting to get rank.