I have discovered the secret to crafting an entertaining story. Forget plot. Forget character. Forget all that stuff. You want guaranteed success? Just make sure the title of your next masterpiece is “The Last [blank]”. Then, fill in the blank.
Think about it. The Last of the Mohicans – terrific book (even better movie). Avatar: The Last Airbender – terrific TV show (let’s pretend the movie did not happen). The Last Unicorn, Y: The Last Man, The Last Samurai, the list goes on and on. Even that zombie video game The Last of Us was terrific.
Maybe there are exceptions, but The Last Witchking is not one of them – Vox Day’s fantasy novella is worthy to join the pantheon of “Last of” titled entertainment. In the end this may prove to be the more worthy accolade, despite the Hugo nomination.
With Vox’s latest, you get three stories for the price of one: The Last Witchking, The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro, and Opera Vita Aeterna. They are all set within Selenoth, the fantasy universe found in A Throne of Bones. I’m going to rate these separately.
Make sure to stick it out past the first few pages of The Last Witchking, because the opening scene has some on-the-nose dialogue that rings false. A castle is under siege, and a husband and wife melodramatically give their final goodbyes and dole out exposition as they prepare to be captured by an elven army. Then, just when you’ve consigned the story to cliché land, the husband sets his wife on fire.
Turns out he’s a sorcerer from a long life of wicked witchking sorcerers, and he has to wipe out any evidence that he has an heir to the throne. Specifically, a son: Dauragh, son of Mauragh, son of Thauragh (son of…Jim Harbaugh?).
So we’ve got a classic set-up. A traumatic origin story, an orphaned hero who doesn’t know the truth about his birth parents, and a grand destiny that will require training to achieve it. But instead of Hogwarts, it’s off to the Wolf Isles for some good old fashioned sparring, sex, and sorcery. In these kind of dark arts, Dauragh is an apt pupil.
The first story keeps getting even more twisted from there. The last sentence reads: “Scrubbing the bloodstains out of wood was always a trial.” While I enjoyed the grim mood and much of the demonology, the heart of the story is between Dauragh and his mentor, but their relationship felt a little thin to me. There is a death that didn’t quite have the impact that I think it should have. Also, the ending seemed rushed; the beginning holds more promise than what is actually delivered. Still, an enjoyable ride (in a sickening kind of way) and one that acts as a prequel for explaining the origins of a memorable race of creatures found in A Throne of Bones.
The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro has goblins protecting hobbits from an occupation of orcs. According to the afterword, the story is based on the Italians experience dealing with the occupation of the Third Reich in the Second World War. So I guess that makes for Italian goblins, Jewish hobbits, and Nazi orcs. The individual characterization is done well here – Bextor is an amusing and unlikely hero – but this was a story that didn’t make too much of an impression.
I’m a sucker for stories about friendships, and Opera Vita Aeterna, the last story of the bunch, is ultimately about friendship. On the one hand we have a humble monk, and on the other a possibly unsouled, sort of murderous, definitely sorcerous elf, seeking God in the shelter of a monastery. The elves in Selenoth are more icy than ethereal, and are off-putting enough they give every scene they are in a bit of an edge. While that was certainly the case here, I would have liked to have spent more time with these two. The structure is kind of crazy, jumping through time decades at a time, then centuries, but somehow it all works. This is a faith-centered story that is heartbreaking, beautiful, and truly inspired.
Read The Last Witchking because you heard of the controversy surrounding that aforementioned Hugo nomination, or because you enjoyed some of the other tales from the A Throne of Bones.
Or maybe just because of the title.