The 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.