Saturday, 23 March 2013

Fantasy Novellas Reviews: 'The Wandering Tale' by Tristan Gregory

This is a collection of novellas set in a single world, and only loosely connected: a minor character from one story becomes more important in the next one. Each one is published and sold separately.

#1: The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles hes been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isnt just for kings and soldiers. This is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than Ive seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. Five stars.

#2: The Three Fingers of Death This book focuses on the apprentice smith seen briefly in the previous story, and tells a tale which doesnt quite have the same charm as the first, but has an atmosphere all its own. The characters here are equally well-drawn, and the story unfolds in easy stages until the smith is called upon to use some unusual skills. And then, suddenly, were in different territory altogether. I have to confess that when the smith created the three swords of the title, it made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Truly a fascinating perspective on the use of magic, and the responsibilities inherent in that. Four stars.

#3: The Giant of the Tidesmouth Im beginning to get the hang of the authors strategy now, so I spotted the connecting character in the previous book - Hedmund, the very large young man setting off for his big walk, the period as a mercenary traditional amongst his mountain clansmen. This story is about Hedmunds adventures on the road and his first battles. As always, the characters are wonderfully real, with dialogue which captures the essence of each one. There is some solid world-building going on in the background, too. Each story in the series can be read on its own, but anyone who reads them all will begin to understand a great deal about the history of this world. And possibly geography too, but for the directionally challenged among us, a map would have been useful. This seemed a little more lightweight than the previous two tales, and I never felt that Hedmund was in serious danger. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

#4: The Crown Unconquered In this story, the mysterious man, Daven, seen in the woods of the previous tale, takes centre stage, becoming the ambassador at the court of Normarch, a potential ally for Valec, the kingdom vanquished in the war. The political machinations and shifting alliances are the background here, so this one is a little more complicated but it's not hard to work out the various factions. There's a lot of tension, since Daven has to pass through enemy territory to reach Normarch, and then has the risk of presenting himself to the king without knowing quite what reaction he'll get. Another cracking story, with some great characters, just enough action and room for a romantic distraction. I very much liked the dilemma Daven was presented with. Clearly he has dutifully married to produce heirs, even though his wife is - not compatible, shall we say. And then he meets Allindra... who wouldn't be tempted? This was beautifully done. And a fine ending, too. The book may be short, but it's absolutely perfect. Five stars.

The story so far... I don't know how many of these tales the author plans, but with each release a little more of the created world and recent political events is revealed, and the more fascinating it becomes. There's a lot of subtlety here. People are honourable without being stupid or caricatures, they behave in believable ways and display both intelligence and strength of character. Even the bad guys have reasonable motivations. Below the surface are some thought-provoking themes - of war and honour and duty and bravery, the responsibility of power and the pragmatism of politics. Each episode is a little gem in its own right, but together they add up to something much more interesting. Highly recommended.

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