In Brief: James Barclay’s Dawnthief features a band of mercenaries in sword-and-sorcery style adventure. The characters are hard men (and women), loyal to each other first, who find themselves drawn into a great conflict with darker forces in the land.
Pros: Barclay has a good command of military history, and his system of magic is consistent. A good sense of history, solid characters, and an eye for avoiding cliches make this a an effective first effort.
Cons: The beginning chapters are messy – perhaps due to a switching p.o.v. style that is somewhat troublesome. The logic behind the penultimate spell at the heart of the story is a little sketchy.
Review: Dawnthief introduces a band of mercenary soldiers known as the Raven. A small but intensely loyal group who earns their money fighting the small wars between the nobles of Balaia. Their code is simple: they don’t do assassinations and they always put the members of the Raven first.
We meet them marshaling the defense of a small castle outpost – a simple enough mission that goes sideways when a mage from the College of Xetesk called Denser appears. The mercenaries follow him in an attempt to stop him, losing one of their number in the process. They find themselves in an alternate dimension, where Hirad, one of their leaders, confronts an ancient guardian and inadvertently helps Denser steal an important magic talisman – one of the key components for the spell, Dawnthief.
This opening goes quick, and it’s frankly a little confusing. The main reason is the author’s method of switching point-of-view in the middle of scenes abruptly. It’s as if he wanted to drive through the first chapters at a breakneck pace to set the tone. Maybe his editor told him to step lively and some characters cues were cut; anyway, I found myself having to backtrack and re-read. Usually this means I don’t finish the book, but I gave it a few more chapters and the p.o.v switches settled down a bit.
I’ve since learned that this was Jame Barclay’s first novel, so that’s a factor. Also he’s setting this story up as Sword-and-Sorcery, which frankly demands a sprint at the start (as opposed to the more Tolkien-esque High Fantasy slow-build). Also, I’ve noticed that British authors are sometimes less strict in their approach to 3rd person point-of-view, and if you can adjust to their rhythm (and not be overly bothered by it), the payoff is often worth it.
This was the case with Dawnthief. I sensed Barclay’s knowledge of European history in his treatment of mercenaries. Many people don’t realize that mercenaries were the backbone of warfare for much of the medieval period. Small, professionalize forces who fought for the nobility. The author immediately keyed on this and made it central to the questions facing the members of the Raven. Namely, that they’ve been at it for years and have started to contemplate retirement.
Instead, they agree to accompany Denser the Xeteskian Mage to the next town for an outrageous fee, but when they arrive they lose another of their number to an assassination attempt. Hirad and the rest of the Raven just want to be rid of Denser, but others have told them the barbarians to the West are gathering in force and that the Wytch Lords may be close to escaping from their ancient prison. Ilkar, the Raven’s mage, reluctantly confirms this story and the mercenaries agree to help Denser.
As plots go, it’s certainly not the most original, but Barclay weaves in the back-history and politics of his land, Balaia, effectively enough to keep you engaged. More importantly, the characters themselves come alive as they struggle to deal with the loss of comrades and realization that great and terrible events are unfolding.
Hirad, leader of the Raven, is a great example. His goals and attitudes shift markedly throughout the book. He starts off as one of the guys, contemplating retirement and then revenge, but as he becomes the sole leader of the group he becomes more concerned with preserving the Raven’s code, and ultimately, expanding its numbers to ensure the group’s survival. Denser is another interesting character. With origins in the ‘dark college’ of magic in Xetesk, Denser has to deal with centuries of biases and suspicions (and as we meet more mages from his college, we learn these are well-founded). We’re not quite sure of his true objectives, but gradually we see changes wrought by the courage and loyalty of the Raven.
One final note concerns the system of magic the author employs in this this book. It is very consistent, with a definite internal logic and set of rules. If I’m not mistaken, Barclay’s system has origins in gaming somewhere – either traditional RPGs or computer games. This allows him to have his wizards employed strategically and thoughtfully in battle and gives the reader a sense of what can and can’t be accomplished through magic. This is no different than how Steven Erickson, Raymond Feist, or even J.K. Rowling approach the task. But this meticulous approach to magic definitely isn’t for everyone – sometimes you want to discover and theorize about how things work as you’re reading. Then again, Sword-and-Sorcery isn’t for everyone either.
Bottom Line: Despite an uneven start, Dawnthief introduces a number of interesting characters and a has plenty of action and magic-laced adventure. Fans of the Sword-and-Sorcery subset of fantasy fiction should certainly give this series a look.