When I was younger, I slogged through quite a lot of mediocre fantasy novels. Like many young folks, I had somehow picked up the idea that I should always finish a book once I’d started it. Except for a few of the most truly atrocious ones, I reached the end of every single book.
The First Betrayal, by Patricia Bray, is the quintessence of mediocrity. We have two main characters. Josan is a monk who’s assigned to keep a lighthouse on a lonely island. Ysobel is a diplomat assigned to ferment a rebellion against the Empress in the city of Karystos. The two meet briefly at the start of the book and then separate. Josan remains at his lighthouse. He has a mysterious past and only fragmentary memories from childhood. Then an assassin shows up and Josan is forced to flee for his life. Meanwhile, Ysobel manages the intrigues of life among rebellious nobles.
Everything in the book follows a predictable, paint-by-numbers scheme. Characters, plot, and world-building all proceed along a dull, monotonous path towards a destination that’s just not worth caring about. The high point, or perhaps low point, is around the two thirds mark of the book, where we finally learn the secret of Josan’s mysterious past. The only problem is, any intelligent reader will have guessed the secret hundreds of pages earlier, making the whole thing anti-climactic.
I would mention one other problem. Bray’s prose isn’t terrible. It’s pretty much the definition of ‘workmanlike’. But it’s boring for a clear reason: there’s no humor. None. I don’t expect every book to be comedy gold, but has there ever been a decent book that didn’t include at least a little bit of humor?