I’ll say up front that I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but I loved the idea of what is written being such an important part of this story, and that was what attracted me to it – that, and the stunning cover design. So I’m delighted to say that this is a well-crafted, imaginatively constructed story that is very readable, regardless of whether you read a lot of fantasy or this is your first foray into the genre. It’s also the first in a series, which seems almost essential when writing fantasy, but will also please readers who have been quickly swept off their feet by this story.
A valuable item has been stolen, and its theft has brought a realm to the brink of war. Old enmities are being revived, and trust must be rebuilt between enemies if a far greater threat is to be overcome. But will time run out, and will the power of our hero be enough? This might seem like the plot to many a fantasy novel at the most general level, but Ben Galley has done a nice job of finessing the story with some lovely, well-imagined details. Farden, our hero (though not an enormously likeable one, perhaps) is a complicated fellow, driven yet a little lost, isolated and feared, yet inspiring fondness in his closest confidantes and strangers alike. He is also torn on the inside by a weakness that could literally render him powerless. His well-drawn vampyre adviser Durnus is very strongly characterised, as are the wonderful dragons Farden meets with their Siren riders, who are also beautifully described. I have the faint sense that Galley likes some of his characters more than others – I was less convinced by the drawing of a couple of them who I won’t name because I don’t want to hint at a spoiler – but the world of Emaneska, the towns, the huge buildings in which the most important action happens are all inspiringly drawn and will not disappoint any reader.
There’s a lot of action in this book – the fighting at which Farden is so proficient, and the use of magick (though less than I was expecting actually) – and also a lot of politics too, for this is at some levels a very political novel. It is about allegiances and loyalty, corruption and manipulation, weakness and strength. The first key revelation about two thirds of the way through was perhaps not as surprising as it could have been though, and I felt for a moment as if I was watching an episode of a US crime drama, because I was running out of possible candidates for the villain. However, this is a series, not an episode, and it is always a challenge to keep the momentum going well enough not only through this book but through those that follow. I agree with other reviewers who have pointed out Galley’s potential as a novelist, and what I think is admirable (perhaps because I don’t read a lot of fantasy) is that he has not created an over-complicated world, littered by its own creative profusion. There are not so many characters, races, languages, mythologies and so on that one cannot keep them all to mind if you put the book down for a day or two, and I don’t intend it as a weakness when I say that at its heart this is quite a straightforward tale.
If I have one particular criticism it is that the narrative writing can be very dense at times. Having a solitary hero, and seeing so much of the world through his eyes, means that narrative writing outweighs the quantity of dialogue by quite a bit and it can make the novel feel rather one-paced in places. To some extent this is a feature of the genre, but for this reader, a bit more variety of pacing and more dialogue in general would have elevated this novel beyond being what is already a very good book.