Farlander, Col Buchanan first fantasy novel, was pointed out a couple of times since the start of the year as a contender for best fantasy debut in 2010. I think it deserves even more press since it's the work of a promising new voice in the genre.
Nico is in trouble. He sought city life in Bhar-Kos, but in a town occupied but enemy forces, one can only get so many openings. The opportunity will eventually present itself in the liberating form of Ash, a Roshun. This gathering of assassins is at the heart of every revenge being executed in the name of those who have been protected by the Seal they bought for protection. Following the old man despite his unwillingness, Nico will hone antagonistic abilities in a hidden monastery. He will eventually take the field and discover that the work of the Roshun is way more exhausting and dangerous than he expected.
The summary of Farlander's story sound pretty familiar but is should not stop you. Yes it's about assassins but we are not reading about the tale of their incredible deeds, we are reading about the men behind the swords. The two main protagonists are Nico and his master Ash. They are an unlikely pair, the master not really wanting an apprentice and Nico following him for reasons outside of his own choosing. This creates an awkward relationship at first, eventually growing into respect for each other beyond the master-apprentice bond.
Nico is one of the most genuine characters I've read about in a while. He is not the prodigal son and even though he begins as the wandering farm boy, he won't grow into an extraordinary man of prophecy. Buchanan wrote a character with heart, failings, trying to find himself and struggling with his coming into manhood within a band of elite killers. The humanity behind the boy makes me believe in the character in a way that I have not felt very often. His reactions and those of the young prince Kirkus near the ending (I won't spoil) are natural and not always heroic, it feels authentic.
Then, Nico is surrounded by Ash, who may remain slightly too much like the silent and mysterious skilled warrior we see oftentimes. However, this bad-ass old assassin is also charmed by the boy and the result will push him to do what's right at the cost of some of his principles. The young apprentice will also find friendship in the form of Aléas, and love interest when finding himself near Serèse, the sibling of Aléas mentor, the tough and pride Barracha. All in all, a great bunch of characters. Nico's uncle, Bahn has some chapters for himself, but they don't really connect with the whole plot... interesting but kind of weird choice.
I felt at first a great distance between the good protagonists and the seemingly evil religious-empire rulers but the addition of some characters from within the empire eventually blur the lines. For example, Ché, a young assassin (yeah, there's a lot of them) shows a bit of the other side differently from the dictatorial god-incarnate-playing rulers of the empire and their unforgiving generals and priests.
If you read about Col's past (in a small summary) on his website, you can understand where some of the ideas or concepts for the book came. It shows in some of the Roshun training in the monastery. However, much of the setting in which the protagonists found themselves is a medieval world with a touch of modernism, mostly gunpowder. The religious-political background is well established and the world seems to be filled with various exotic nations and history. We have seen this mix a couple of times but the presence of zeppelins, trams runned by horses and sky steeples creates a unique blend for the author. There's especially one scene with Nico and Ash in the airship that is quite entertaining.
Magic is not a primordial part of the book. There are some instances of mysterious events (dream talking between great distances or seers visions) that could only be explained with some sort magical elements or mystical theories but this is not an aspect driving the world or its inhabitants.
Buchanan writing is precise and concise but with ample style. The right dose of descriptions is used and the fluidity of the prose can only be complimented. Everything from the choice and alternation of PoV, length of chapters and vocabulary simply feels accomplished. If you're looking for a well written fantasy novel, serious but funny at times, set in a finely crafted world dominated by an expansionist empire, betrayals, mysteries and inhabited by authentic protagonists all coated with a nice layer of realistic human emotions and reactions, Farlander will be a blast for you.
And the ending is really awesome.
Technically, I found the cover of the book to be gorgeous even with the infamous hooded assassin portrayed. The novel stands at 388 pages and a very nice map of
some alternate Mediterranean Europe :) Midères is included (love it!). The map can also be found here.
Farlander review score :
Characterization............. 9 /10
World building............... 9 / 10
Magic system................. 7.5 /10
Story.............................. 8 / 10
Writing........................... 8.5 / 10
Overall (not an average) 8.5 / 10
Col Buchanan page