Author's note: Mrs. Rollins, if you're reading this, I just wanted to let you know that I greatly admire your work. You have effectively infused science fiction with a Christian spin, if imperfectly. Maybe you've been kidnapped and replaced by a clone by the mel dijetera or something. I don't know. But I'll remain intrigued by your future projects, even if they don't measure up to things you've done in the past. I believe in Julie Rollins.
In hindsight, I greatly misjudged The Vadelah Chronicles - Book 5: The Defender. Looking back on it, it had uneven pacing, woefully ill-plotted story, and it shared the same
major characterization flaws that the rest of the series has. This
book, however, Echoes of Darkness, while having a slightly more cohesive plot, is much worse in every way. Maybe it was because Mrs. Rollins' ventures into self-publication meant less editorial oversight, or maybe it is merely the natural effects of Sequilitis. Either way, this book, the first eBook that I've ever acquired, is a less and than worthy successor to its entertaining predecessors.
This story picks up with the shoe-horned in villain from the last book, Kulak, doing generally evil stuff. You see, Kulak's a mel hanor, and mel hanor are evil. It's a bit involved, but it boils down to all non-Earth societies being part of the Naharam Alliance, who fight the mels, mels consisting of either one of the three completely mel species and random people who "went mel" and were expelled from their society. You see, an Old Testament belief in God is institutionalized in these alien planets (which for some reason does not result in the practice of corporate worship), and they are kept knit together by the phantera, a completely non-mel species who are basically perfect. They don't have to sleep, they don't eat, they can't ever, ever go mel (at least, not naturally), they can assimilate languages by touch, yadda yadda yadda. Anyhow, Kulak's evil and he does evil stuff, including raiding David's new home on Arana with his human and alien buddies, who apparently have nothing better to do than hang out with David while God sends him on missions. Then, something unspeakably horrible happens, thanks to Kulak, and... David gets a horse? Either way, the said horrible thing doesn't affect the plot much, other than David's wife Penny getting a new pet. Meanwhile, on Earth, the SIRIUS Project is getting started up again with some random guy named Mr. Elwood heading it up on a more team friendly approach. They start studying this crullah (mel spaceship) that they found in orbit around Earth, and they recruit Darius Blackwell from prison to help them, and then they send this cartoonishly evil guy named Stan Wellington to Arana, and things go wrong fast.
Okay, I'll be honest. This book is pretty dumb. Gone is the agile prose and clever plotting that made the earlier books so special. The characters are all the same, not having changed a bit since the first book, and the plot goes nowhere. You've got a gazillion subplots to keep track of, such as the Judas Warrior plot, the random mel balahrane High Priestess (RMBHP) who wants to kill David, the SIRIUS Project, the Haltek/horse plot (which is not at all what it sounds like), and the tired old Mysterious Phatera Prophecies plot. I know that Kulak and the RMBHP were built up to be the main villains of this story, but they barely appear, doing nothing except reminding us how evil they are. Granted, they're responsible for the Judas Warriors, but that's about it. Arajar is the real heavy, and he's so, so evil. The book will not cease reminding you how despicably evil he is. The other Judas Warrior, whatever his name is, decides to be good for some reason. Apparently, Arajar just decided to be evil, and this other guy just decided to be good.
Speaking of evil people, let's talk about Stan Wellington. Overlooking the fact that Darius Blackwell somehow got to know this guy intimately enough to judge him as a bad guy (and that's the main villain from the first and third books doing the judging), the fact alone that a convicted criminal doesn't trust this guy is pretty jarring. That Mr. Elwood was like, "Oh, hey, Blackwell thinks this guy is bad news, lol," but let Wellington go anyway is plainly ridiculous. They lampshade it, but still, how did a guy this full of himself get on a Secret Government Project? And Wellington himself... oh, this guy. Who in their right mind, especially in a group of what are presumably seasoned professionals, headed by a really savvy guy (I'll give Mr. Elwood that much credit), would even think that a guy who is as trigger happy as they come would be a great idea for first contact? Granted, the new SIRIUS Project wasn't intending for Wellington to make first contact, but still, they had to expect something would happen given the alien's technology level. I mean, they have practical faster-than-light travel, and they don't think they have radar? Anyhow, Wellington is a needless antagonist who is anemic and shallow as the rest of the cast. What he does near the end of the story is as inexplicable as why he's still around at all. The only apparent reason for this turn of events was because something important had to happen related to the Mysterious Phantera Prophecy plot of further books, which I'm not sure will be explored until book nine anyway. On final note concerning this matter, I think it was incredibly jerkish of David and Co. to deliberately lead Wellington on when he was on the planet. They justify it by essentially saying "You didn't ask." I'd think that such Solid Christians as David and Gyra would be a bit more mature. They basically pre-judge him, even before they find out he's a trigger-happy nutjob.
If I'm going to address anything else, it will be the death of this one character. It's a pretty blatant example of Stuffed in the Fridge, meaning that the character was killed off in a gruesome way in order to give their love interest emotional trauma. No, it wasn't one of the main cast per se, but it was someone who's been around since the initial trilogy who is quickly and newly established to be important to a main cast member, but the issue then gets brushed off. Stuffed in the Fridge is a horrible precedent to set, mainly because it so frequently happens to women. It marginalizes women in a hugely demeaning and horrific way that doesn't have to happen. If it happens to a guy, the same principal applies, and I'm not to keen on this sort thing. It's not good writing if it serves no other purpose than to traumatize the love interest, which is exactly what happened here. If it had far reaching consequences, which it didn't, and was reacted to by all of the characters in depth, then I might let it pass. As it is, it doesn't.
I mentioned the too many subplots issue, but now I'd like to elaborate on it. Earlier in the book, it's made to look like that David is going to struggle against having to kill his opponents, the closest thing to a character arc I've seen from him in the entire series, or from any of the main characters for that matter (Todd's character arc was limited to book 1, and skipped over to where he has remained since Book 3: Blackwell's Wrath). Instead, it's quickly shunted aside in favor of what is apparently an effort to deconstruct the notion that all phantera are literally ordained by God to be perfect (there can never be a mel phantera). My creative writing teacher could go on all day about perfect characters not existing in real life, and when they exist in fiction, it is very annoying. It's annoying here, and multiple such characters dying horrible deaths doesn't make it any better. But even this poorly handled subplot, and, dare I say it, a theme, didn't stick, as we were then introduced to Stan Wellington, and you all know how I feel about him.
Kulak and Wellington are both terrible villains, but one good thing about this book was the RMBHP. The RMBHP (I can't remember her name) is cunning, genre savvy, and actually has charisma. I wish she'd had a bigger role in the plot. Likewise, another new character that really stood out was Mr. Elwood. I like it when we get realistic characters who aren't constantly holding the Villain Ball or Idiot Ball, and that's what we've got here. Mr. Elwood is a Genre Savvy Reasonable Authority Figure. He appreciates what's going on around him, and he sounds like someone I'd like to work for. He's not perfect, having sent Stan Wellington to Arana, but that actually makes him a good character, because he has actual flaws. He's essentially the one thing about this book I liked.
Of course, there were plenty of things about this book I didn't like, and one thing I especially didn't like was the abrupt reintroduction of Haltek. He was David's first disciple on Morsala back in Book 2 (Vashua's Messenger), and he appears here, briefly. Why? To give David a dadblamed horse (long story). I would have liked it much better if David had had a tearful reunion with Haltek, with more book devoted to it, but here, Haltek barely gets two chapters. It's gratingly frustrating, especially in light of how well Shektul was handled in Book 4: When Dreams Die. Hopefully this issue will get patched up in Book 8: Gift of the Phantera when David goes back to the three dark planets.
All in all, this book was another disappointing installment in a series that was pretty great for the first three or four books. With any luck at all, the next book, which promises to be Something Completely Different (after a fashion) will go a bit better. It sounds like they'll be ramping up the stakes in a way that we haven't seen since Book 5: The Defender's deus-ex-machina-resolved feather shield thing. Truly, I like Mrs. Rollins' style, but there's only so much to like about it. Terrible shame.
Addendum: I forgot to mention how grating the explanation of the mels' evilness was. When Penny asks Debbie why the mels won't leave them alone, Debbie simple responds, "Because they're mels!" Ugh, really? I know the doctrine goes that it's impossible to be neutral towards God, but that that doesn't necessarily translate into all heathens being antagonistic towards Christians. This is just a lazy way of providing villains for the heroes to fight without developing much. Do they want to take over the universe? Why? Aren't there peaceful planets who have no quarrel with either the mels or the Naharam Alliance? Just, why?
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