Pilgrimage to Skara by Jonathan Pembroke #SPFBO


skaraPilgrimage to Skara is the third book I read from the nine finalists of the #SPFBO. It’s a story that follows a journey, over harsh terrain in search of magic.

As the story begins we make the introduction of Pell Wendt.  Pell is a farmer but clearly there is more to him than at first meets the eye which becomes immediately apparent when he receives two visitors who want him to take on a quest.  Pell was a pathfinder, which means he took promising young people out to shrines where some form of magical ability would be bestowed upon them.  This isn’t a possibility for everyone mind, this is only for those who have passed an initiation test that shows they are able to wield magic.  Pell accepts the mission even though this is a more dangerous journey than any he has encountered before and the chances of survival are slim.  The young hopeful, Kellie, is the daughter of the Baroness of Kettiburg.  The usual promise of riches are made but the motivation for Pell accepting the challenge is that he was once in love with the woman who is now Baroness and although she left him in pursuit of her own ambitions he still carries a torch.

On the face of it this is the type of fantasy that I enjoy.  The promise of a journey over unforgiving terrain in search of magic whilst encountering dangers and difficulties along the way.  I do love this type of tale and in fairness I thought the book got off to a good start, but, ultimately, this one didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped.

I’d say that the world here is post apocalyptic – although that might be the wrong description so please feel free to correct me.  Collum is broken up into the Hightown and Lowtown – no surprises that the former is filled with vying nobles, all jockeying for position and power.  Lowtown is filled with the peasants who the nobility barely deem worthy of notice even though they cleary do all the work.  The whole place feels, for want of a better word, unhappy, disillusioned and on the bring of disorder.  Life is hard, food is difficult to grow and beyond the safety of the walls lies the Outlands and the promise of plague.  The Lowlands are dangerous and populated with barbarians.  It’s not groundbreaking world building but it’s easy to read and form a picture in the mind’s eye.

In terms of characters.  We mainly follow Pell and Kellie, obvious I suppose as they’re the ones on the pilgrimage.  Neither of them come across particularly well although both of them have back stories that colour their actions.  Pell’s history has been harsh.  We eventually discover that he was at one point a fairly ruthless criminal until he found his true calling was to take potential magical adepts through the outlands in search of shrines of power.  He fell in love but ultimately the relationship failed and at this point, discouraged and miserable with life in general Pell took himself off and lived a life of solitude on the remote farm where we first made his acquaintance.  Kellie on the other hand has led a spoiled and pampered life at court.  She’s betrothed to a young man from one of the other noble houses which will effectively help to form a strong alliance and secure her house’s position.  When it is discovered that Kellie has magical promise her ambitious mother will  do anything to ensure that her daughter gains the magic within her grasp – even if it means putting Kellie’s life in danger to do so.  So, we have Pell undertaking a quest for the love of a woman who spurned him and Kellie undertaking the same quest because her hand has been forced by the same woman.  Finding out that her mother’s ambitions outweighed her affections was something of a blow to Kellie.  Both of them are consequently unhappy and coupled with their own prejudices this leads to animosity along the way.

On the face of it this is a book that I very much expected to like but as much as I wanted to love this there were elements that just got in the way.

As I mentioned above this isn’t a particularly unique idea but it’s still a good one.  A quest, a travel to find magic, an embittered adventurer and his young charge.  Tropes became tropes for a reason but there has to be something else thrown into the mix.  I liked the writing, it’s easy to get along with, not overly descriptive or filled with info dumps, but at the same time it just didn’t wow me.  The pacing was good and there was plenty of action but again the threat didn’t feel real and the problems felt easily overcome.  The characters were a little bit cheesy and the dialogue stilted.  Pell is constantly being referred to as ‘the best’ (he even describes himself as the best – no false humility there) – he’s been in retirement for 20 years.  How is it possible in those 20 years that he’s still the best?  Okay, I could overcome my disbelief if Pell’s actions spoke of his brilliance along the way but he was anything but impressive.  This is one of those examples in writing of being ‘told’ something and therefore being expected to run with it.  I don’t want to be told that Pell is the best, I want to read it through his actions, his creative thinking, the way he gets out of a difficult situation.  Show me he’s the best don’t tell me.  I never found myself liking Pell and to a certain extent that’s fine, you don’t have to like everybody you read about in fact it’s unrealistic to expect to like everyone. It’s more that I found myself constantly querying his motivations and actions.  And, then, of course, the young girl falls hopelessly in love with him.  Again, fine.  This I could understand in some respects although it’s a particular trope that I could really have done without.  He’s protecting her, even rescuing her on occasion – but, again, it just didn’t ring true.  Why on earth would she fall in love with him?  I just can’t get my head around it because none of his actions along the way ever made that scenario a possibility – other than, again, being told so – I needed convincing along the way and it didn’t happen.

This isn’t a bad book, it has some very good ideas, and I’m not against anti-heros or flawed characters – but, for me this had too many things that I felt like I was constantly railing against that prevented me from really immersing myself in the story.

I gave this book 4 out of 10 which equates to 2 of 5 stars on Goodreads.  Sadly this simply didn’t work out for me and so it’s not a book that I would ultimately recommend.

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.  The above is my own opinion.