One of the common complaints levelled at the modern world of traditional publishing revolves around the narrowly constrained style that predominates. A limited-omniscient third person point of view, and one that shifts focus from chapter to chapter, or even from paragraph to paragraph, has come to define modern story-telling, with deviations from that expectation conveniently sidelined into short fiction where the avante-garde risks can be safely managed and the time investment for exploring non-traditionally narration can be safely minimized. The bland, almost newspaper writing, style of delivery works both because it is efficient and because it reduces the risks of turning off readers who have been conditioned to accept the one-size-fits-all narration.
Enter Brand of the Warlock, which features the powerful voice of the point-of-view counterfeit sorcerer relating the twists and turns of his eventful life. As the story is one of constant zigs when most authors would zag, this review perforce must be light on plot and heavy on style.
As with most epic fantasies, the tale opens in a bucolic setting where a lonesome farmboy dreams only of wooing the lovely maid from the farm next door. It’s a classic for a reason – it works. It helps to establish a setting vaguely eastern European in style, and one beset by massive horse tribes from just over the mountains constantly beating on the doors of the few viable passes. The son of a veteran, our protagonist heads off to war to make his fortune that he might return with dowry suitable enough to win over the objections of his sweetheart’s father. Despite doing everything right in the army, his return proves less than triumphant – a fact not ameliorated by the disappearance of his would-be fiance.
He tracks her down only to earn the titular brand of the warlock. Now cursed and rejected by the good people of the land, he finds himself plunged into the political machinations of Dark Powers, with all the import those capitalized words convey.
The poor and dirty prelude to the grand adventure helps to make the strange and alien settings through which our sorcerer journeys on his way to find peace feel all the more alien. And the discursion into military life helps establish him as a smart and cunning man, but not one who has neglected to learn the tricks of a more mundane and steel-edged way of forcing the world to bend to his will. It paints a man thrust along by fate, a man forced to improvise to save his skin, and dragged kicking and screaming into gaining power not for its own sake, but that he might one day finally be left alone. It’s an effective way to show a dark and determined man, but a sympathetic one driven to darkness by a dark world, and one who strives to rise above that world.
Most modern day epic fantasies micro-detail the protagonist’s rise to power. Every semester of schooling, every military campaign, every summer vacation, gets filled in with action, or fleshed out with extraneous details. Not so here. While the tale does wander in and out and around the search for our protagonist’s love, each of the detours builds to a satisfying conclusion to book one. This is a throw back to novels like Captain Blood and Scaramouche, complete with misunderstanding that drive the plot, unexpected revelations, and a small cast of well-rounded supporting characters that flit on and off the stage as needed. It meanders, but always with a purpose.
It’s enough to cure this reviewer of his hard-learned aversion to epic fantasy. If you’ve never burned out on over-long stories told over multiple volumes, then you’ll appreciate how different The Brand of the Warlock is from the rest of the pack.