New Book Review 39: A Keeper’s Tale

A Keepers TaleThe thirty-ninth book indie book review I’m doing here is for A Keeper’s Tale: The Story of Tomkin and the Dragon, by J.A. Andrews. Way back in August 2016 I wrote a review for this author’s high fantasy novel A Threat of Shadows, which is one of my favorite indie fantasy novels. If you like, you can find that review here. A Keeper’s Tale is presented as a fable told and retold by people in the world where A Threat of Shadows takes place, and consequently is a little more like a fairy tale than a high fantasy novel.

Our protagonist is Tomkin, the younger and less-favored son of a duke in a dull kingdom called Marshwell. Tomkin is a teenage dork, peevish, too weak to lift a sword, hardly the heroic archetype. He is sent on a quest through two coinciding events: learning that he’s been betrothed to a reputedly shrewish woman, and learning that a dragon has allegedly been devouring local livestock. Before long our brave hero finds himself trapped in a ruined castle alongside a moody dragon named Vorath, a longsuffering kobold named Wink, and a sarcastic young woman whom he calls Mags. The primary plot involves Tomkin’s attempt to escape his predicament, with the supporting characters helping and hindering him in various ways.

Tomkin and Mags are fairly well developed as characters. Thy both have some gaps in their backstories, but they think and act in pretty credible ways. Vorath initially seems like a pretty stereotypical Smaug-esque dragon, but he gets some good development as well. I would have liked to see more development in Wink the kobold, as I was left with a few questions about his personality, motives, and background. That being said, I think it’s to the story’s benefit that there are so few characters. We’re able to get to know those characters without being distracted by keeping track of a wide cast of side characters. Overall I thought characterization was done very well.

For the first half of the novel, everything is pretty light and comedic, and there are notable nods to other mostly light-hearted fantasy works like The Hobbit and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Around the halfway point there is a pretty significant mood shift. Learning more about how Mags and Vorath have come to be in the castle raises the stakes in the story, and it gets to be a little less light-hearted and a little more serious. That being said, the story and Andrews’s writing in general are proudly noblebright fantasy, and the menace stays PG and never quite reaches PG-13 or R. Fantasy fans who favor heavier, grimmer stories might dismiss this more positive fantasy as infantile or pointless, but I appreciate a wide variety of fantasy and thoroughly enjoyed the book. I suppose the target audience might be teenagers and kids rather than adults, but as an adult I liked it, and I think many other fans of the genre would too.

And now once again, the plug. If you are a fan of fantasy, you can look into my own book, Tales of Cynings Volume I, in print format here or Kindle format here.



New Book Review 38: Casting in Stone

casting in stoneThis is the first new review I’ve done since September. Working as a substitute teacher and maintaining a handful of other jobs have taken up a fair amount of my time, so I haven’t been writing as much or supporting other indie authors as much as I should. That’s not a great excuse, and I mean to do better in the near future.  Now, this latest review (number thirty-eight) is on Morgan Smith’s Casting in Stone. Way back in August 2016 I reviewed Smith’s A Spell in the Country, which is one of the best indie fantasy novels I’ve come across. You can read that review here. Both of these books are in Smith’s high fantasy series The Averraine Cycle, taking place in the same world and referencing some of the same locations and history, but not sharing characters or plot points.

Like A Spell in the Country, Casting in Stone is told from the first person point of view of a tough and fierce warrior, a woman in a medieval-esque land of castles, knights, and dangerous magic. Our hero is Caoimhe, an orphan with notoriously ill luck and a penchant for killing. In a flashback we learn that she served as champion for a young duke named Einon during a period of power struggle and court intrigue in the town of Rhwyn. There were a lot of court intrigues in the story, and I regret to say that I couldn’t very well keep up with all of them. The main story was centered on Caoimhe’s investigation into a curse that she believes has been plaguing her, and the ways that the people around her manipulate her to keep her ignorant of the curse or help guide her to discovering the source of the curse.

There’s some action in the story: descriptions of one-on-one battles between champions, descriptions of skirmishes against feral supernatural wolves, battle against wicked supernatural entities. With the descriptions of fighting and the daily routines of being a soldier in this kind of grim pre-industrial fantasy world, the author spares no detail. The weapons and processes and fighting techniques are elaborated in a way that reveals how much time Smith researched her source material, creating a very believable setting. This was the case in A Spell in the Country as well, and I’m again impressed and inspired by it. In my own fantasy work, I would do well to imitate that commitment to research. That being said, there were long stretches of the book where things moved slowly, and where I really wanted to see more things happening. Where the story was interesting, it was great, but there were stretches when it dragged on.

As someone who appreciates quality high fantasy, I definitely appreciated this book, and I think other fans of the genre will appreciate it as well. I’m keeping an eye out for other works in The Averraine Cycle.

Now, once again, my bit of promo. If you are a fan of fantasy, you can look into my own book, Tales of Cynings Volume I, in print format here or Kindle format here.