Audiobook review: Catalyst by Marc Johnson (fantasy)
Wizards can always surprise people, as well as readers. Well, readers are people, too. Anyway, a classic wizard tale is one of adventure, magic, and wonder. A great wizard tale is one that makes the classic tale a unique one, even if it means recreating the wizard’s wheel.
Catalyst is the first book written by Marc Johnson in a series, The Passage of Hellsfire. An odd village boy, Hellsfire, lives with his mother in a village that doesn’t see him as he wants to be seen. All he wants is to live a normal life, but that becomes impossible when he saves the princess as she tries to escape her captors outside his town, and he unleashes a strange, fierce power to save her. This new power sends him on a journey to learn and control his newfound hunger for the energy he possesses. Controlling it is only the beginning, though, as the possible destruction of the princess’s city, Alexandria, surfaces, and darker forces arise from a long-ago past of wizards and dark magic.
In each review, I cover a few things about the story that stood out to me, whether good or bad, and talk about it as it relates to writing before I rate the story. Because this is an audiobook, I will cover the narrator as a mandatory topic.
Choosing an audiobook narrator is likely one of the most difficult things to do because an author is choosing a voice to be the “face” of a book. Well . . . ear. There are a few things that are easier to discern such as the clarity of a narrator’s voice, the gender, and the dialect.
I have to say I was surprised when I heard Bryan Zee. The accent and general tone of his voice seemed so much more innocent and . . . young? . . . than I expected Hellsfire to be. It gave me an image of someone resembling Eragon’s little brother, if he’d had one.
His voice was clear and easy to listen to, and after a while, I got used to Bryan as Hellsfire. When Hellsfire’s wizard side of it all started to surface, and he became the student later seeking to save the world, I found myself content that Bryan was that voice to help me create the image of Hellsfire. It was an interesting match, and it took me a while to get used to it, but I did, and I think Marc Johnson chose well.
Bryan Zee didn’t change his dialect or inflection or anything when other characters were speaking, but that didn’t hurt the story. Sometimes, it made the switching dialogue difficult to discern between speakers, but it was fine overall.
The name “Hellsfire”
Names are often the initial image readers (or listeners) have, and they draw the sound or even spelling of a name to create that image. I was glad to hear that Hellsfire wasn’t a name his mother chose herself, and I was more pleased to learn that it wasn’t a normal name and other people knew this. It only helped because all other names, while unique, weren’t as odd as Hellsfire’s, so if it wasn’t weird to the other characters, I would have questioned it the whole time.
Names of characters often have meaning, and as the story progresses, the actions and adventures reveal more truth behind the name. It’s unique, and I enjoy how simple yet thoughtful this unveiling is. It is completely relevant to the plot, and it shows so much about the character and the story that make it engaging.
When naming a character, the key is relevance. Some writers simply throw a name in that fits, but when it’s unique like this or complex like another name, relevance is important. Languages must be considered, as should time periods, history (if relevant), and even dialect. You can learn more about finding a good name for your character here.
The classic hero plot
It’s easy to write a cliche. There are stories that draw a reader because of its uniqueness, and there are stories that draw a reader because of its predictability. Similar to happily-ever-after stories, classic hero stories often involve prophecy, relatably normal main characters, villains who don’t know them, and an adventure that brings the three together at the cost of a princess, kingdom, civilization, or the world.
Catalyst makes the hero story an adventure that can easily be appreciated. While it offers unique elements such as a historical war that creates monsters of once-before allies, it brings together elves, dwarves, dragons, and humans with a wizard whose powers are well past his ability to control. But, he has to do it because the villain isn’t waiting for him to finish learning, and he has a prophecy to fulfill.
The great thing about this story, aside from Hellsfire, is the prophecy. Most classic hero books reveal the prophecy toward the beginning or at least make it something that is within reach. While Hellsfire does address the idea of the prophecy, it’s not that important to him. Just like it is for the readers, the prophecy is a question lingering in the back of his mind, but it’s not his goal to discover what it is and why he’s part of it. The prophecy will be fulfilled, and the readers will find out what it is, but what’s more important is the ride Hellsfire is taking us on because his character drives it forward.
As I listened, I kept hearing the same word really close together. A few phrases were repetitive, too, such as “It ached to be released.” That one, in particular, caught my attention, as often as I heard it. There were many times throughout the read that I found myself getting distracted and trying to think of better ways to rephrase something or different words to use so the sentences didn’t sound the same.
This was a minor problem, but it was a bit distracting, and it made the narrative a little duller than it might have been. Even for a main character’s voice, it didn’t fit. It wasn’t something that seemed intentional, so I can only assume the repetitive words were simply overlooked.
What I liked: Unique, engaging character. I enjoyed Hellsfire’s slow start and immediate addressing of issues that arose with his own character. When he craved power, for example, he knew that was unlike him, so it made the sudden hunger more believable as it was being explained and fleshed out.
I enjoyed the steady flow of the story. Hellsfire saves the princess from a small matter, and it’s such a minor moment (though huge at the time) despite the fact that she’s a princess. I found the twist in significance to be refreshing, and I found it more refreshing when she wasn’t useless. More than that, she was ridiculously dedicated to her kingdom, revealing her own strong character.
What I didn’t like: The repetition of words and phrases throughout the book got frustrating at times. Even as a reader (and not just an editor), I think this was noticeable.
I wasn’t a fan of the villain mostly because I don’t understand him. He seems to be a convenient villain, one who is hungry for power just for the sake of it, and I’m hoping that he becomes more understandable later.
I didn’t enjoy how “easy” it was for Hellsfire to win. While the battle itself was fantastic, it still didn’t make sense that someone with his lack of experience could beat a wizard of that magnitude, even if he had help and he didn’t truly beat him. I think, depending on how things go in the future, this will be addressed. It helps that the villain wasn’t truly beaten.
I love magic, and I’m all for a classic hero tale if it’s done well. Characters are my biggest concern with common storylines, so it was a must for this one. I’m definitely jumping into the second book, What Once Was One, so you should get started on the first one if you want to catch up.