The Grand Crusade by Michael Stackpole is the final chapter in the the DragonCrown War Cycle, continuing on from When Dragons Rage. The previous book suffered from some dreadfully dull passages, and I'm sorry to say the final book has the same problem. Stackpole spends way too much time arranging the pieces for the final conflict, and not enough time making those pieces interesting. The DragonCrown War Cycle ends up being a series that starts on a high note and plummets from there.
Will Norrington is dead. Will is the man everybody believes was prophesized to be the one who would kill Chytrine, the queen of the North and the woman who wants to take over the entire world. Chytrine's armies are raiding the southern lands, and the various provinces are fighting each other politically as much as they are fighting her. King Scrainwood of Oriosa, a conniving coward, has made an arrangement with Chytrine in order to protect his kingdom and the seat of his power. General Adrogans has beaten Chytrine in the west, but the rulers of the southern kingdoms fear that he will set up an empire for himself. Paralyzed by politics and fear, it looks like Chytrine has an open invitation to take over everything. Only a few heroes are willing to try and stop her, and they manage to get enough support to raise an army. But all is not what it seems. Is Will really alive, able to fulfill the prophecy? As the southern armies fight for their lives, a new figure may emerge to decide Chytrine's fate.
The Grand Crusade does little to live up to its billing, feeling more like a half-hearted skirmish as far as this reader is concerned. I was hoping for a riveting conclusion that would keep me on the edge of my seat, and I kept waiting for it to happen as Stackpole maneuvered everybody into their proper positions. He places the various leaders at the head of their armies, has the expedition to the Northlands put together, and makes sure everything's set. Unfortunately, this takes up half the book, and I had trouble keeping my eyes open.
The main problem is that the prose is wooden, much more so then I remember the previous books being. Most of the characterization and the dialogue felt forced and unreal. Stackpole, both in his dialogue and in his narrative voice, uses a very annoying technique, especially when it happened in almost every chapter: he starts to list things. "But he had acquiesced for two reasons." Then, he goes on to talk about those two reasons. Stackpole does it. His characters do it. I see Stackpole ticking off his fingers as he's writing, if that weren't a physical impossibility requiring three hands. It's a symptom of the entire book, where he's constantly setting things up, describing everything without actually doing anything.
It gets worse as Stackpole sets up the battles. Action is one of the things that Stackpole excels at. He can be quite bloody in his descriptions (and when he gets to the battles in The Grand Crusade, he is still quite graphic, so be warned), but everything has a pace and intensity that I just marvel at. He puts the reader down in the middle of the action, and you almost find yourself looking behind you to make sure somebody's not coming up to you with a sword ready to skewer you. It's effective, and the book has a lot of energy when he writes the combat scenes. However, every time it looks like the battles are about to start, Stackpole starts setting them up again. He shows us countless strategy sessions between the generals, and he has those same generals brood on their strategies some more before finally executing them (many times listing the various things that could go wrong).
Don't get me wrong. I'm not an action junkie, needing the blood and guts to make a book good. However, the non-combat part of the book has to be interesting, or give me the battles! I found that I barely cared about any of the characters, including characters whom I had cared about in the previous books. On the positive side, I didn't find any of the characters annoying, which is a step up for a couple of them (Kerrigan and Isaura). Ultimately, I found that the battles were the only interesting things in the book, and I found myself getting annoyed when each battle would end and more strategizing happened.
While the battles themselves were wonderfully done, I found that the results of them too often had convenient resolutions, as somebody comes in and saves the day. One battle has General Adrogans come from very far away and arrive at the perfect time to do what is necessary to turn the tide. While he knows that the war is happening there, he has no idea what the exact situation is. He's just going to help as best he can, and he just happens to get there where he can make the biggest difference. So many of the battles begin with our heroes acknowledging that they are in an almost impossible situation, and that even if they prevail they're going to lose a lot of soldiers. However, most of the time they don't have to deal with that because something else happens.
Finally, one of the plot threads that looks initially like Stackpole's going to deal with it in another book ends up being wrapped up in an epilogue, which felt horribly rushed. While I would have hated the fact that he's leaving himself open for another book (or, worse, another whole series), I felt the rushed conclusion was the worst way to do it.
Ultimately, if it wasn't for the battle scenes, this book would be the bottom of the barrel. As it is, it's close. I've seen so much better from Stackpole, and the series started out so wonderfully. I didn't realize that I was already at the top when I started it. If this wasn't the final book of the series, there's no way I would have finished it. Avoid it if at all possible.