The author describes this as a bildungsroman (I had to look that up; it's a posh word for a coming of age story). As such, it's a very common theme in fantasy, but that doesn't make it uninteresting, and there's always scope for a retelling of the old stories, if the author can add an original twist or two. Here, the young man coming of age is Val, who sets off with his friend Uriel and a gnome called Maryl on a Lifequest, the test all young men and women have to undergo in order to be recognised as adult. They are, however, allowed to choose the objective of the Lifequest themselves, and Val chooses a near-impossible one - to find a cure for an illness which afflicts members of his village, and which is ultimately fatal. There's also a restriction (and a fairly arbitrary one, it has to be said), which is that the person on a Lifequest isn't allowed to kill another human.
The three questers
make rather a nice group. Val is the idealistic one who's also a fine
warrior and discovers magical abilities within himself, Uriel is the
cynical one with hard-to-control magical abilities, and Maryl the gnome
is an empath who sees the emotions in all sentient beings, and can
manipulate them. They have a nice jokey relationship, in between
battles. The other characters are less interesting and tend to fall into
tropes: the beautiful warrior babe (a couple of those), the roguish
thief turned revolutionary, and so on. The people of Val's village are
introduced at great length early on, and some of them are interesting
and I would have liked to know more about them and the village.
plot - well, there's a quest which allows our three intrepid heroes to
wander around the landscape, and there's a series of set-piece battles,
which actually have nothing at all to do with the quest, and more to do
with the idealistic Val being distracted by every captured slave and
mistreated farmer's daughter and oppressed town he comes across, and
deciding he has to save them. Despite some spectacular failures along
the way and Uriel pointing out repeatedly that he can't save everybody
(good advice, Val!), he keeps on doing it, and dragging his friends
along too. Considering Val is honour bound not to kill any humans at
all, the body count is quite alarmingly high, and I found it hard to
believe he could be quite so naive as to get involved time after time.
The fights are very well choreographed, however, and even I could follow
them easily (this is a compliment - my eyes usually glaze over at these
The world-building is sketchy, to say
the least. There seems to be an assumption that the landscape is too
ordinary to need description - there are woods and farms and so forth -
but I would have liked a bit more detail. ‘The trip through the dwarven
tunnels was uneventful’ doesn’t exactly set my sense of wonder on fire.
The underground city is dismissed with ‘Dwarven wrought buildings
towered hundreds of feet into the air, as did statues and monuments’.
One setting (which is introduced as a city, quickly becomes a town, and
then is a mere village) merits no description at all. Surely Val, from
his nameless village on the frontier, would notice whether the buildings
were similar to those of home or very different (bigger, perhaps, or
stone-built, or more ornate). What are the streets like, do people dress
differently, is the food any different here? But sadly we never find
out. And there's no map (every fantasy story that steps outside a single
location needs a map, in my opinion). However, there is a fabulous
array of strange creatures, some just tossed in as background to a scene
or turning up at a battle. I particularly liked the giant insect
thingy, used for riding, and the burrowing land-shark - very ingenious.
magic system is extremely carefully thought out, and very well
described when it happens. I find it a little too powerful for my taste,
especially since absolutely everybody has some innate ability (varying
from race to race) but that's a personal preference and not a criticism.
There is always a price to pay when it's used, and it's often not quite
enough to win the battle, so it's not quite the get-out-of-jail-free
card it could be. I very much liked Maryl's empathy magic, and one of
his battles, where he fights a hive-mind of wolf-like beasts within his
own mindscape, is brilliantly done and very evocative. The healing
powers are a little too convenient, but again, that’s just me.
minor quibble: humans are called 'humes' in this world, and magic is
called 'magick'. The former seems fairly arbitrary to me. The latter is,
according to the author, a convention to distinguish it from the
sleight of hand card tricks and so on performed by entertainer
magicians. I can't see myself that there would be any confusion. Within a
fantasy story, the use of magic is so commonplace, it surely needs no
special measures to explain it. Besides, the ways magic occur in the
book's world make it very clear that it has nothing to do with trickery.
a major quibble: the story may be great, but the writing needs a very
thorough edit. There are few spelling mistakes, but there are some
grammatical errors that had my inner pedant, head in hands, screaming.
The worst are things like 'he had ran' and 'he had tore'. Apart from
that, the writing is merely heavy-handed at times. There are places
where the point of view head-hops alarmingly, which is disorientating.
Then there are pacing issues. In order to get to the action more
quickly, presumably, a lot of setup is skipped over. For example, in the
hostile city/town/village, Maryl uses his empath's magic to get them
into the boss's house, by manipulating the servants' minds, but we never
see this, it's simply mentioned in passing, and we jump straight from
entering the town to breaking into the house. A paragraph or two
describing how he does this would have been nice. There are occasional
infodumps, places where an ability or a piece of history is simply
explained, as if in the classroom, and a few places where modern
terminology intrudes: 'it sucks' for example, or ‘flying by the seat of
his pants’, and a rather eloquent and introspective section where Val is
musing on his willingness to kill ends with talk of endorphins,
andrenaline and hormones. Now, it's not impossible that they would have
known and used such terms, but it stopped me in my tracks and spoiled a
very nice moment. However, the writing improves noticeably as the book
There's a nice little story here. There are some very
original and creative creatures, the magic system is well done, even if
it’s a little too powerful for my taste, the battles are believably
choreographed and the characters are interesting, especially the complex
Uriel. Val’s journey from ordinary villager to war hero to legend is
realistically detailed, and although he’s inclined to rush in
overconfidently, he often pauses to reflect on the consequences
afterwards. There are moments of real depth in these introspective
interludes. Unfortunately, the plot is just too flimsy and episodic,
there's a lack of description and the writing issues interfered with my
enjoyment. For those who like lots of action with an array of weird
beasties and a hero who always manages to rise to the occasion and
aren't bothered by the rest, you'll love this book, and a good edit
would give it the professional polish it currently lacks. Unfortunately,
the negatives kept it to three stars for me.