Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review | Herald of the Storm - Richard Ford

Ford's second novel, and in a very different subgenre from his first - the engaging, steampunky Kultus, which I reviewed back here - Herald of the Storm is an epic fantasy with some interesting twists on the genre. Still, the initial setting is a familiar one: a union of states, an east-west divide (while not dwelt on, I did find this slightly disappointing - barely moving beyond stereotype for the titular herald's eastern background), and a threatening horde. Said horde is currently at war with King Cael, the novel's absent monarch, leaving the city we're concerned with - Steelhaven - stripped of troops, sought by refugees, and preyed on by the Guild (an organisation of occasionally organised thieves). And here's where our story starts to move beyond the typical.
With the characters.

Princess Janessa's first thoughts might seem predictable - an arranged marriage which is entirely undesirable, a distrust of her father's councillor, Odaka. But her arc is far more about a growing role and responsibility in the city - something rarely glimpsed in fantasy's monarchs (which, not to put too fine a point on it, seem to spend more than half their typical books attempting to flee their countries!), and certainly a much more interesting role than the 'rebellious princess' stereotype.

And since this is epic fantasy, there are a few characters. Quite a few. From Kaira, a religious warrior on a mission to infiltrate the city's Guild, to Waylian, a student despairing of ever mastering magic, but dragged into an investigation of black magic in the city. This is both one of the novel's main strengths and its biggest weakness. The multiple plotlines are frequently engaging, and offer a great deal of variety: deftly handled by Ford, nothing is ever allowed to grow dull. There's plenty here for everyone - from (not quite Lynch-style) organised crime, to a learning ruler, to a murder investigation. The weakness? For certain characters, there's a bit of a The Way of Kings analogue: similarly to Sanderson's novels, some plotlines are shorter and read more as an extended character introduction for later novels. This isn't something I object to, but readers interested in some resolution all round might want to hold out for a book or two.

But Ford's talent here, far more so than in Kultus, is the emotional depth of some of his scenarios. Triumph is not unadulterated with regret, and that's another refreshing addition: unlike the abstract Tolkienesque attempts of some "the Elf magic is fading away" plotline, one or two of these are character based and far more powerful for it. While not quite Guy Gavriel Kay, Ford definitely has a knack for this, and I hope this keeps up throughout the series.

Since I'm - well - me, you might expect a certain degree of interest in the magic system. Sorry, I'm not subverting reviewing conventions today: and Herald's system, belying a recent trend, leans firmly towards the mysterious side. That's not a bad thing. Since it's infrequently used, and a decent price is apparent, it works well - though I won't spoil which tidbits we do receive, let's say that it's certainly something whose revelation I anticipate tying further into the series. This isn't Sanderson-esque: but if you like a certain thrill of the forbidden with your magic, the atmosphere which comes with it, this may well be your kind of novel.

Make no mistake, this is a series though - and though many plotlines do have a resolution, particularly emotionally, there is a large element of anticipation. Confrontations, mysterious orders... It's clear the next novel will be one to watch out for. While sticking to a few conventions (particularly in the world, though I'm pleased to note the Odaka plotline avoided stereotype - because in a great deal of fantasy, a trusted councillor is essentially a synonym for "guilty as all hell"), Herald of the Storm generally manages to put its own spin on the subgenre, and the sheer variety of its subplots is a noteworthy quality in itself. In a subgenre often bogged down in convention, Herald is a breath of fresh air. And especially since the female characters got a great deal of said subversion of roles, there's a lot to be said for it.

The verdict? Definitely a recommended read!

2 comments:

  1. Yay welcome back!

    Hmm.. I'm not sure if this one grabs me.. I'd like to read it sometime but I'm not convinced it's going to be a fantastic read, shall have to see. Maybe I'll wait for book two and read them together. That might work better!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This one looks pretty awesome! The cover just got me, nothing says fantasy like a good cover.

    I'm a new follower (found you through the Book Blogger Directory), I'd really appreciate a follow back.

    Rose @ www.thecosydragon.com

    ReplyDelete