"The Chrome Borne," Lackey and Dixon

Pros: An odd sense of reality; fun protagonists; interesting stories and setting
Cons: Cardboard villains; one glaring deus ex machina; some exposition problems
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

First published 7/12/2001

Note: “The Chrome Borne” is a compilation of two stories by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon originally released as “Born to Run” and “Chrome Circle.”

Okay, so this book sounds a bit weird. Elves, dragons, fox-spirits, and… car-racing? In Georgia, of all places?!

I have dim memories from my teen-age years of a particular sub-genre of fantasy in which the protagonist was always a young man with unruly hair who rattled off names of rock ‘n roll bands (and usually played music to suit his mood, even occasionally printing bits of lyrics). Maybe it was only a book or two, and the style was just so distinctive that I’ve never quite forgotten it, and magnified it in my memories into the status of “sub-genre” when it never was. Or maybe I’m just recognizing the tell-tale feel of a writer who’s really fond of something and can’t help but work it into his writing as much as possible.

Anyway, here we are, with our protagonist, Tannim, being a young man with unruly hair who has a tendency to bring the names, music, & lyrics of his favorite bands into the mix whenever possible (it’s a bit much, particularly if you don’t happen to recognize whatever group he’s bringing up at the time, but it isn’t a bad thing). He’s a human mage who hangs around with elves and has a dragon for a mentor. He has an unflagging optimism (curiously paired with a healthy dose of paranoia), a soft heart for hard-luck cases (particularly children), and lots of nasty scars, inside and out. He’s a race car driver, a mechanic, a test-driver, and the elves’ main contact with the outside world.

And that’s just the normal stuff.

The Characters

The good guys are pretty neat. The main characters all have a fair amount of depth to them – they feel like real characters. There’s Tannim, of course, who’s a fairly interesting character. There’s Tania in the first story, a young runaway/prostitute in over her head. There’s Sam, also in the first story, a retired metallurgist with some hidden strengths. Ross is a redneck ghost, a surprisingly fun creature. In the second story we meet Shar, a half-dragon half-kitsune (Japanese fox spirit) mage with an interesting background and some dubious designs on Tannim, and Joe, a fledgling mage (and human) whose father used to be a cult leader.

Some of the sideline characters are a bit one-dimensional, but that’s hard to avoid. I would have liked to see more of Keighvin Silverhair, an elf lord and Tannim’s friend, but the authors didn’t choose to go there. Ah well. For such an important character, I felt that we almost never really scratched the surface of him.

What irritates me, however, is that most of the villains are also one-dimensional. They scream, they posture, they make loud threats, and they’re usually pretty and/or handsome. Ho-hum. There are very few moments at which the villains seem frightening or interesting. Even the ones who are doing some interesting scheming have one-note personalities, or the ones who have slightly interesting personalities aren’t really doing anything interesting. Charcoal, a dragon and Shar’s father, is one of the very few villains in this book who has any real level of scary threat or interesting personality to him, and we only meet him at the very end of the book.

An Odd Sense of Reality

I was originally going to complain that many of the jokes cracked by the characters sounded vaguely forced and/or stilted. Then I heard yet another bad joke cracked by one of the punsters I live with, and something struck me – of course the jokes sounded vaguely forced and/or stilted. So do most real jokes cracked by real people.

The jokes are just one aspect in which this story feels oddly “real.” I can’t entirely pick out all of the things that create this atmosphere, either. It’s just that despite the elves, despite the magic, despite the elven steeds that morph into race cars… this book lends this weird feeling that all of this could really happen to you. That you could run into Tannim in a bar, and maybe he’d smile that lopsided grin at you. You could meet someone who turned out to be an elf, or get whisked off “Underhill” to the realms of the Sidhe. Maybe it’s all of the details that are so strongly grounded in reality. Perhaps its that even the fantastical details are often grounded in or compared to ordinary, everyday things that we can understand. I don’t know, but it’s pretty neat. Heck, the good guys even have aches and pains and scars from their battles – how often do you see that?

About the only thing that ever interfered with that sense of reality was the feeling that when the authors showed characters who were in the midst of change, learning to be better people, or learning something else important, it often felt too quick. As though the characters were changing faster than they really should have. I wasn’t being shown enough of the background of the situation to really believe in the changes that I was seeing.

One Glaring Deus ex Machina and Some Exposition Problems

I can forgive some rampant expository lumps (and some rampant expository lumps not-so-cleverly disguised as dialogue), particularly in something the size of a novel. They made me wince a little, but usually the characters doing the talking were interesting enough that it wasn’t too bad. But the deus ex machina in the second story almost dropped this book single-handedly to three stars instead of four. Would have, if I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the ending so much.

Okay, so you can see from a mile away which seemingly inconsequential character is going to save the day. However, when the writers have to launch into almost three pages of exposition (excuse me, expository dialogue) to explain said saving-of-the-day afterwards, you know you’re in trouble. I’m okay with weird endings where you have to spend a little effort wrapping up all the half-clues and dropped hints so that the reader understands what happened. However, when the entire story related in those almost-three-pages is something that wasn’t even remotely hinted at in the book (but could have been if the authors had put just a little effort into it!) – no. That’s bad. That’s handing the solution to the characters out of nowhere. It’s unsatisfying. Inelegant. Hell, it’s just plain poor craftsmanship!

Obligatory Sex-and-Violence Note

There’s fighting, but no real gratuitous violence. There’s some indirect sex, but nothing “on-screen” that I recall. There isn’t even a lot of bad language. However, a lot of the off-screen sex is not of the happy kind. The plot in the first story involves bad elves kidnapping children and using them in some of the worst sorts of illegal films.

Ultimately I do recommend this book. Almost any other book with this many problems would have gotten 2 stars, but this one has so many good aspects to it, and is so much fun to read, that it manages to overcome most of its problems. Call my rating a 3 1/2, because of that horrid way of ending the second story. It was only a small part of the book, though, and the rest was surprisingly fun. After all, during the time I was reading it I found it almost impossible to put down.

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