Book Review: The Sum of All Men by David Farland

sumofallmen

Book One of The Runelords

Do you ever start reviewing books in your head before you’ve even finished them?

Me at 100 pages: Wow – amazing premise.

Me at 200 pages: More characterisation and we’re into the story now…

Me at 300 pages: All right…I get it…do I love it? 

Sometimes a premise can be so big, it can cast such a big shadow it really takes over the book. And the premise of “The Sum of All Men” is a brutal magic system, whereby a “Runelord” with some blood metal and incantations, can take an endowment from a willing subject. The endowment can be many things; brawn, glamour, smell, sight, metabolism, wit. Endowments that are taken leave the giver (the dedicate) a cripple and double the skill of the taker. So, a Runelord with an endowment of sight will be able to see twice as far, but his dedicate will be blind.

I really take my hat off to David Farland for such a complex magic system – when most fantasy novels seem to use the elements or just wave a wand, this complex ‘give and take’ system really lent itself to some complex nuances, and also offered the opportunity to explore the moral cost of magic.

Farland really delights in raising interesting scenarios and questions regarding the system and exploring their outcomes. The link between dedicate and Runelord is for life, and runs both ways – if a dedicate dies, the Runelord loses his endowment, which leads to Lords keeping strongholds full of invalids more safely protected than gold. If a lord with dedicates becomes a dedicate himself, he becomes a vector, all his endowments pouring into the new lord. Metabolism, the endowment which controls speed, causes a person to age rapidly. And how would gravity and inertia effect a person who can run at over 100 miles per hour? If you gather enough endowments, can you become invincible?

As you can see, it is well thought out and fascinating, but really takes over the story as much as it has just taken over this review.

There is a lot to like about this book; the fight scenes are amazing, especially towards the end and the plot moves from action to action, yet I found it hard to really connect with the characters. I think after reflection, it is because of the moral issue of the giving of endowments. Whether a character is ‘bad’ or ‘good’, endowments (whether given willingly or unwillingly are received the same way and lead to the same outcome; a castle full of slaves. While Farland seems determined throughout the novel to convince the reader there are good ways and bad ways to take endowments, I couldn’t help but find the distinction dubious.  “Good” Runelords didn’t buy endowments from the needy, only took from those willing to give, and kept their dedicates in comfort. “Bad” Runelords forced dedicates to give endowments through blackmail and kept them in chains and cells. At the end of the day though, a slave keeper is a slave keeper, regardless of how he got the slaves (you’ll notice the premise is taking over the review again).

The other thing I found a little strange was because of the nature of the endowments, every described character feels like they just stepped out of a role-playing game; he had the brawn of eight men, and the metabolism of four, the glamour of six and the sight of three.

Having said that though, there are lots of otherworldly elements to this novel; the fireweavers and water wizards who are almost non-human, frowth giants, nomen, and the reavers, terrifying insectiod creatures who are beginning to encroach upon man’s land. It really danced a fine line between sci-fi and fantasy, but I liked that it felt fresh and different.

Personally though, I didn’t really connect with the main characters. Prince Gaborn Val Orden, the hero, is young, handsome and tries to have a moral compass. His power comes from external sources. His love interest, Iome, spends a lot of the novel ‘feeling sad.’ Even the invincible Raj Ahten, the ultimate baddie, who is gathering thousands and thousands of dedicates (and for a guy with a thousand endowments of wit, doesn’t seem very smart). Perhaps this is the “big premise” issue again, as it’s hard to cheer for a guy who is practically immortal.

As I’ve said, this story had a great premise and its really worth reading just to see how the reader explores it. The freshness of the concept is fabulous and if you love complex magic systems, you’re going to love this book. I could see the series making an excellent role-play game!

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