[Editors note: This review sat for a few days before I was able to post it, and when I got back around to re-reading it I think I may have been a bit harsh, especially due to some of my biases from related books. I'd be happy for someone to contradict me on this review and give me a reason to try the second book]
I really, really, really hate to pan this book, because it’s soooo close to being everything I love in character-fantasy: snarky first person narrator, main character with dubious morals, betrayals, plot twists, magic, &c, &c. Unfortunately, either due to my own personal bias or perhaps due to the lack of polish that sometimes comes with first books, these ideal elements didn’t quite coalesce into a good book. A passable book, perhaps, but not the excellent, rollicking, laughter-inducing tale that I hoped for.
The setting: Will Hawthorne is a young actor (think Elizabethan era) who writes some stories, but more often than not gets stuck playing female characters - dress and all. On the day that he’s set to graduate from his role as an apprentice and become one of the big players, a decree is sent out to close all theaters and arrest all writers of note (repressive government and all that jazz). Will makes a run for it and is sheltered by a mysterious collection of men and women. They turn out to have things like Morals and Scruples (unlike our Will) as well as a firm belief in Doing The Right Thing. Will is forced to tag along with them in order to stay out of the government’s clutches, and ends up being sucked into an investigation of strange attacks and magical happenings in a nearby province.
Will as a character is a lot of fun – just the sort of narrator that I love to read: witty, scrupulous, tactless, and a big self-serving coward. Unfortunately, a couple of problems kept him from being ideal. First, as the book goes on Will “develops” and “changes” but it seems forced. His shenanigans and reactions also get a bit predictable, so he’s less and less fun to read as the story progresses. The second problem is more a personal problem: Will is basically a clone of the main character from Sir Apropos of Nothing. If you hadn’t read the aforementioned excellent little novel by Peter David, it probably wouldn’t present an issue for you. But since I read it last year, Apropos was fresh enough on my mind that Will seemed like an imitation – and a pale one at that. Very Sad.
Still, that’s getting pretty picky. Overall I liked the narrator and the themes in the book; a strong story or supporting cast would have done a lot to remedy my gripe. Sadly, the supporting cast were mostly one-dimensional and predictable (though I did have a soft spot for Orgos), and at their worst moments annoying. The story tried for political intrigue, but mostly ended up with a plot line of “then they went there and discovered ‘this.’ Then they went somewhere else and discovered ‘that.’ Gasp! A revelation!” The “big reveal” at the end wasn’t much of a surprise, and honestly the tedium of the storyline by 250 pages in had me close to giving up.
So – it is with much disappointment that I can’t really recommend Act of Will. I wanted so much for it to be great, and given so many promising elements it’s a travesty that it didn’t come together as excellently as promised. That said, I think there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll give book two a try – the story’s (fictitious) translator promises it will be out in a year… I guess we’ll see. I want very much for Hartley to live up to the promise he shows. Perhaps it will just take him a couple of novels to hit his stride.