Books: The Red Knight

In Brief:  Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight blends traditional fantasy elements with strong historical fiction writing to great effect.  The title character leads his band of mercenary knights into the frontier to protect a vital outpost against the chaotic forces of the Wild.  As the forces of the Kingdom of Alban gather to confront the Wild, we meet a number of other interesting characters, Cameron’s system of magic, and a complex-without-being-excessive setting that includes complex politics, medieval economics, and philosophical-religious overtones.

Pros:  The sense of historical realism, even within this fictional setting rife with magic, wyverns, daemons, places this book in rare company.  Once you grow accustomed to Cameron’s method of switching between the main characters – not always to their p.o.v, but always focused on them – the method works extremely well.  Excellent characterization, pacing of the action and the world-building, and a very intriguing setting and magic system.

Cons:  None, really.  This is a very, very good book.  Maybe if you’re not into a Medieval Europe-style setting…  Maybe if you don’t find historical detail woven into a fantasy world fascinating…

Review:  Miles Cameron has a degree in Medieval History and an obvious love for historical reenactment.  He also has had a fine career writing historical fiction (as Christian Cameron), is an old school D&D guy, and likes to camp in the deep woods.  With swords.  This is my guy.  Of course, I didn’t know any of this before picking up The Red Knight; I’d just viewed a recommendation lauding the book for its blend of historical authenticity with fantasy elements.  It turns out, Cameron has written a number of historical fiction books and stories (as Christian Cameron), and his knowledge and familiarity with everything from armor to fortifications to the philosophical foundations of Christianity sets this novel apart.

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You get 50 pages

50 pages for any novel should be enough.  In that space the author should be able to hook the reader, through their use of language, characters, plot, setting, or some combination therein.

For most books I read these days, I know I’m all in after the first few pages.  Redshirts, for example had me during the prologue.  The Mirrored Heavens (review) took some additional time due to pacing and wanting to get a feel for the different point-of-view characters.

Sometimes an author will face an uphill battle.  A 1st Person narrator, for example.  You better come correct in your first chapter with your 1st Person or I’m likely out.  Overexposed conventions in sci-fi and fantasy (such as vampires and orphans-of-destiny) get even less leash.

My patience can be expanded if I know this is a writer’s first book, or the novel comes highly recommended by someone whose opinion I value.  And actually, I have some friends who will only give a book 10 pages or one chapter…

This doesn’t happen as much anymore because I usually do enough research on my next read to prevent it.  But the last few days, looking at a new novel, I had to invoke the rule.  No, I’m not going to name the book and author here – the Intertubes has enough negativity.  On to the next story.

Gotta work that 1st Person

I recently picked up a novel based on the premise and back matter alone – always a questionable choice – only to return home and find it was written in the 1st person narrator format.  For the non-writerly and readerly types,  this means the storytelling comes from one point of view, the narrator, using “I” (as opposed to third person).  This novel (which I’m not going to name because it’s not cool to run someone down) juxtaposed an ancient Celtic druid in a contemporary setting, which seems like an interesting take.  But I couldn’t get through one chapter.  Too much explaining, not character revealing, awkward, and I immediately knew there was no way I was going 300-plus pages with this narrator.  Back to the bookstore to trade in for something I will read.

The Beemsville take on 1st person goes something like this: works great great for short stories, Frank Miller graphic novels, and Magnum P.I.  For everything else – you better bring it.   Continue reading

Books: Among Thieves

In Brief:  Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves provides fantasy fans a first-rate immersion in one of the great but often overlooked settings of the genre:  the thieves guild.  The story, a first-person account of local rogue Dorthe, twists, turns, and double-crosses through mean streets, imperial plots, and ancient conspiracies.

Pros:  For a thief, spy, and wise-guy, Drothe is a likable guy and an excellent narrator.  Hulick does a fine job describing the workings of the Kin underworld, injecting their Cant speech, and providing a descriptive background of the city, Ildrecca, without going overboard or bogging down.  The action and swordplay are also well-written.

Cons: A first-person fantasy novel will nearly always lack a level of self-awareness by the narrator.  In other words, Drothe tells the story, while withholding some key developments, and doesn’t seem that changed or affected by it.  That’s mostly OK.  I wonder if Hulick could have pulled this story off in a close third person perspective, which would have freed him up to do some chapters from other character viewpoints as well.

Review:  Admit it:  if you come to fantasy fiction from any kind of role-playing background (e.g. D&D, GURPS, etc.), you probably have a soft spot for the thief.  He’s the guy who blends into shadows, ferrets out information, picks locks, and infiltrates hard targets.  He contributes through guile, stealth, and skill rather than brawn or sorcery.  In most fantasy, the thief is a supporting character, there to pick pockets, sneak around, double cross, etc.  Not often enough do we see a novel not only devoted to this archetype, but set in the seamy underworld of the thief’s domain.

Among Thieves – A Tale of the Kin, delves into this world from the opening scene.  Drothe, is a Nose – a wiseguy collector of information and spreader of rumors – with enough clout and experience to be successful without being important.  He moves from dodge to dodge, specializing in artifact retrieval, which soon puts him on the trail of a relic – a book.    Drothe starts sniffing around, finding clues that seem to link the book to a burgeoning underworld war in a particularly seedy part of town.  Old favors get called in.  Powerful crime lords and imperial forces get interested.  Drothe quickly starts to understand that this book many involve powerful, forbidden magic, and old secrets.  He’s in over his head.

Hulick moves his protagonist through this shadowy web with skill, providing enough detail and nuance to give the reader a sense of the city, its history, and its many layers of underworld society.  He doesn’t go overboard as is so often the case in fantasy and keeps the plot and Drothe moving.  This book is a caper and a mystery at its heart, which means timing and pacing are very important.  The author and his editors deserve kudos for finding the right balance.  It’s obvious Hulick had a huge amount of background notes and material he used in building this world and story, but he was sharp enough to keep this from overwhelming the novel.

The characters are fun and vivid as well.  Sure, they’re built from well-used archetypes (a mix of crime novels and fantasy), but the important ones are distinctive enough.  Bronze Degan, a sort of mercenary with a secret code of honor, protects Drothe’s back and jabs back and forth verbally with him to good effect.  Christiana, Drothe’s sister, has moved up from the street to the nobility without revealing her true origins.  Her secret gives Drothe additional worries and headaches.  Jelem is an outlander wizard, providing occasional help for a price.  And the crimelords with whom Drothe works and runs afoul – Nicco and Kells and Shadow –  all convincing and distinct in their way.

This being a first-person novel, the heart and soul of the story resides firmly with Drothe.  He seems more motivated by loyalty to his friends and allies than turning a buck, and his curiosity, wit, and, yes, humility make him easy to like and identify with almost immediately.  Drothe’s skills and contacts help him move from one mystery and escape to the next.  He manipulates people, sure, and calls in old favors and betrays old trusts.  But he feels bad about doing it, rationalizes, and ultimately looks for the path to redemption.  It’s a strange code of honor Hulick has created for his lead thief, yet this only adds to the enjoyment.

My main problems with first-person novels in fantasy are annoying narrators, point-of-view limitations, and literary hang-ups.  Among Thieves doesn’t suffer from the first.  The point-of-view limitations are more speculative on my part:  I like a close third person story that switches between several lead characters, and Hulick’s skill with Drothe makes me wonder if he couldn’t have pulled this off with a few more leads.  As far as the literary argument:  when a first-person lead withholds key information for the sake of a plot, this annoys me.  The fact that Drothe is telling this tale lets me know he’s not going to die.  And self-awareness and epiphany are supposed to be key elements of the first-person story (at least according to our literary betters).    These are very minor nitpicks, probably my own personal hangups, and certainly shouldn’t dissuade a potential reader.

Bottom Line:     Among Thieves is well-written underworld fun.  For those looking for a book set in the urban-crime sub-genre of fantasy, this is a real treat.  I’m looking forward to Doug Hulick’s next story and eager to see where he takes us.

Books: The Wilding

…by Benjamin Percy.  In The Wilding, three generations of males enter a disappearing Oregon wilderness for one last outdoor weekend.  Echo Canyon, where Justin Cave and his father Paul have been hunting for many years, is about to be acquired and developed by encroaching suburbanites, so they want to bring young Graham along to see the place and to blood him into the manly ways of hunting and camping.  Of course the Caves have their issues.  Justin and Paul have been at odds over the elder’s domineering redneck simplicity for years, and Graham, a sixth-grader with early designs on writing computer software, is in dire need of some general wildness.  Yes, their male bonds are about to be tested, old wounds will be revisited.  Also, there’s a grizzly in the canyon.  A big one.

And so we have the canvas for Ben Percy’s debut novel.  Witness the dualities of nature and civilization, man and beast, known and unknowable.  It’s the kind of book that explores our evolving view of what was once the wilderness in precise, often stunning language.  The author’s talent for turning a phrase or metaphor and his obvious knowledge of the setting make for some first-rate reading. Continue reading