Is cozy epic a genre?
At 178 pages, Noble Brown’s The White Arrow is not a particularly long book, but it is crammed with as much actual content as most thicker volumes. The action kicks off with the assassination of a king as the poor old monarch struggles to survive the siege of his city. As readers, we know that the hit on the monarch was also a frame up meant to throw the defensive alliance into disarray. That alliance was made possible by the sudden awol status of the dead king’s daughter, whose running away threw the line of succession into doubt and thus opened the door for a would-be Dark Lord to make his power play.
And here we have to pause to set the stage. This fairly standard medieval fantasy tale takes place in a fractious region filled with minor kings constantly jostling for position. A powerful central Church distracted by an on-going Holy War way over there leaves the whole place vulnerable to the machinations of the Dark Lord and his hunt for a few powerful artifacts of lost magic. Using them, he steamrolls a few minor kingdoms in a way that leaves the whole continent uncertain as to his next move. It is a world filled with Dark Woods, hermitic wizards, and buried treasures best left undisturbed. The Church collects gifted warriors and trains them up as Crusaders, and that capitalization is important because it signifies them as something more divinely powered than a mere man with a pointy stick. The titular White Arrows operate as a sort of independent MI6, secret agents who serve secretive masters and generally add more confusion to the mix.
Fairly boiler plate stuff so far, but Brown uses this backdrop to tell the tales of a large cast of characters.
You’ve got the titular White Arrow, who must fight for redemption. You’ve got the surviving Queen, smuggled out of the city as it falls and hustled all over the map by men eager to use her for their own purposes. You’ve got the missing Princess who has no interest in being found, even if that means inspiring several combatants to drop out and ending the war. You’ve got the Dark Lord and his powerful assassin. You’ve got pirate lords, and random shlubs who pop up as sudden wild cards to shift the action in unexpected directions. You’ve got badass girl thieves who prove to be considerably less badass than they thought. It’s a lot of points of view to keep track of, but given how readily many of them meet grisly ends, it never feels too overwhelming. The White Arrow isn’t the story of any one of them, it’s the story of all of them.
It’s a lot to take in, but Noble Brown manages to juggle all the politics and all of the points of view like a master. He doesn’t waste much time with pointless descriptive passages, instead preferring to focus on the conflicts and the internal motivations of the wide cast. The result is a tightly paced epic that delivers the goods.
The work is marred somewhat by a blasé approach to magic. The gritty politics and fully realized world turns into the bland sort of predictability of a D&D licensed novel. Magic has costs in the world of the White Arrow, and Mr. Brown introduces magic slowly enough to keep it mysterious in the early going. By the end of the book, clerics toss columns of fire around and necromancers fling zombies at city walls with a reckless abandon. The nonchalant way that characters accept these earth-shaking changes drains the events of the wonder and tension that they might have exhibited with a slower lead-up.
For some readers, the casual use of magic might be a feature. We all know what the score is with magic in boiler-plate fantasy works. We don’t really need a full-blown System Of Magic, and refusing to turn magic into just another branch of science fits with the compact nature of the tale. Brown doesn’t have time for that literary faffing about. He’s too busy just setting up an impressive chessboard and flinging pawns around until the heavy hitters can start knocking each other off the board.
And that approach is a definite feature of this work. It harkens back to the best of the genre, when authors could get in and get out and leave the reader with a satisfied feeling of a tale well told without pretensions of grandeur. Poul Anderson could do it. GRR Martin cannot. Nobel Brown stands in a camp with the former rather than the latter. The White Arrow is impressive in its own way – as a lean and mean epic fantasy packed into a book that can still fit in your back pocket.