Sunday, 28 February 2016

Book Review: The Vathiriel Blade

By Mark David Brantingham

'“Within a temple blanketed by thorn, 
The torches on the walls are black and cold. 
The narrow steps are pitted, bleached, and worn, 
Descending to a labyrinth dark and old. 

“Beneath the weathered hill, within the deeps, 
A hallway and a chamber silent wait. 
Upon a bed of gold, the Watcher sleeps 
Behind an ancient adamantine gate.” 

How old is the Watcher in the Hill? Not even the wisest amongst us can say. Is the Watcher real or an invention of the Vanya storytellers who come and go along the riverways of Vangyr? Either way, its legend hangs over us like a deep shadow. 

Out of the western lands the drifter came. A soldier. A slayer. They say he fought for dread King Dwyer, and that blood is still on his hands. They say he lost his wife and child when Easthorn Castle fell. They say many things about the drifter from the west. 

He brought with him the sword with runes that burn. Vathiriel. Does that blade belong to him or possess him? None dare to ask. But on the frontier, we have never chosen our heroes. We take them as they come, if they ever come at all.'

It's an enticing blurb for the book - an ancient cryptic poem and an introduction from an un-named speaker talking about the Watcher and the stranger.

This new fantasy novel from Mark David Brantingham is the first of what may be a series of stories about the unfortunate Sean Fitzpatrick, the man who fought for a tyrant and lost everything. And I mean everything

'When the walls of Easthorn Castle come crashing down, Sean Fitzpatrick is on the wrong side of history. In this battle he loses his liege, his status, his fortune, and his family but is spared by an enigmatic king who sends him east in search of a new life. “Today you are going to live,” he tells Sean, who greets the words as a punishment.'

Dropped by the new King's griffon in the middle of nowhere, Sean is given a chance to start his life afresh; but the wounds of his old life are still too fresh and with a mystical blade given to him by his former liege, he staggers into a small frontier town to discover new problems, problems that may not be as huge as the ones he has left behind but very real to the people it affects. Against his will, Sean becomes involved...

Now, let me get something out of the way first; I think Mark David Brantingham is a good writer, and his dialogue comes across as very natural along with a clean and descriptive narrative. He builds his world well, and the opening chapters create some solid characters and you get a feel for the type of novel you're about to read; power, intrigue and deviousness seems to be the order of the day, and you get a sense of impending doom, not just for the tyrant King but for everyone associated with him. Plans are made, paths are chosen, and you wonder how they're go9ng to get past this huge battle that's about to begin.

But then everything changes. The characters that have been built die, the plot threads they have sown seeds for come to an end, and Sean is taken from this intriguing and well-constructed setting to the middle of nowhere.

Okay. That's not so bad. The scene has been set, so how does he come back into this? Well... he kind of doesn't. What happens is that he gets embroiled with a small frontier town that has a man who has put himself in charge - and owns the saloon, incidentally - and controls people, places and property with an iron fist. Cook, the bad guy in question, is corrupt and deceitful and this is his town. Sean Fitzpatrick is just a wounded drifter and wants nothing to do with it all... if you know your westerns, think Shane meets Deadwood.

And that's where this novel goes; it's a classic bad-guy-runs-the-town western with fantasy trappings. If I didn't know any better I could have imagined six-shooters and stetsons, and the dialogue, descriptions and terminology even cries out 'this is a western!' The disappointing thing is that this story of the drifter staying at the homely family's house and the bad guy in charge is what dominates the book, and the opening intrigue and war, which is what would have made for a great story as it's a great opening, is abandoned very early on, and the Watcher on the Hill, which is given top billing in the blurb and seems to have great significance, doesn't last long in the book and doesn't make much of a difference at all. And the blade? Well, he has the Vathiriel Blade, and apart from being magical and helpful it doesn't make that much of an impact and it's difficult to understand why it's given so much importance as the title and the cover image, unless I'm missing the point and the blade is a reference to the man that wields it.

That's really frustrating, because Mark David Brantingham has created a great world with some solid foundations for a larger, more epic story. His writing really captures the atmosphere and there is some wonderful dialogue, especially when a character is saying what they think and feel, that really resonates and can make for some great quotes. The action is well described and brutal, and there's a real sense of excitement that sometimes jumps off the page, like the writer was getting excited as he was writing it. I can't  fault the writing much.

I just wish that the book had delivered on the story mentioned in the blurb, or the epicness hinted at by the opening chapters. There's a build-up that doesn't feel like it has a payoff, and it does feel like the original story was a western and the fantasy elements have been added on at the beginning and end just to change the genre. It leaves the story feeling disjointed and without a solid base on which to build a plot, and the promise of the blurb and the opening are lost in another story that wasn't meant to be in the limelight.

Saying all that, I can still recommend the book. It's well written and the dialogue is excellent, and the characters are well built and have dimensions that make for interesting personalities. It's a good fantasy book with plenty of promise, and if there are future instalments, with these characters or this world, I'd definitely check them out.

Recommended.