Herald of the Storm review

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Herald of the Storm is the first Epic Fantasy novel for British author Richard Ford, who previously wrote a steampunk novel titled Kultus. The book was released in April 2013 and is the start of a trilogy, the Steelhaven series. The follow-up should be out around the same time in 2014.
Welcome to Steelhaven... Under the reign of King Cael the Uniter, this vast cityport on the southern coast has for years been a symbol of strength, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout the Free States. But now a long shadow hangs over the city, in the form of the dread Elharim warlord, Amon Tugha. When his herald infiltrates the city, looking to exploit its dangerous criminal underworld, and a terrible dark magick that has long been buried once again begins to rise, it could be the beginning of the end.
Herald of the Storm tells seven interrelated stories of various protagonists living in the city of Steelhaven. War is looming and the city is in turmoil. The life of these citizens will eventually clash with one another, in a tapestry of dangerous rituals, slave trading, assassination and heists.  Let's start with the cast:

River is one of three well-honed assassins under the tutelage of the Father of Killers. Stealth is the skill with which he excels but his morality is not cut out as his mentor would hope as he faces an impossible situation.

Kaira Stormfall is a devoted Shieldmaiden confined to the temple of Autumn. She a formidable warrior and thinks that she should be fighting alongside the King's forces in the North. Her commitment to helping the poor and desperate will be her strongest asset and her temporary downfall when she has to get her hands dirty.

Merrick is a mostly failed swindler crawling under debts from a member of the infamous and almighty Guild, the organisation controlling all criminal activities in the city. Should he quit drinking his profits, he could aspire to a grander standing but he can't abide. The Guild will use this to make of him a tool in an inhuman scheme. He brings some relief to a usually serious story.

Nobul is an ex-soldier turned blacksmith trying to raise a son by himself. His failures will force him to return to his past life and confront his feelings. His point of view was probably added to give another not so mandatory perspective.

Janessa is the princess of the city state, trying to take her place as the ruler of the city while her father is at war in the North.  She doesn't want to marry for political reasons and hide an unreasonable love interest. Spoiled but realist, she's the cause of much worry for the regent of Steelhaven, Odaka.

Waylian is a student of magic.  Unlike what we're used to see in magic studies, learning how to manipulate the different arts in Ford's world is a long-term work. Hopefully for the insecure young man, the infamous red Witch, Gelredida, is taking him under her wings to help him in an investigation with a dire portent.

Rag is an urchin leading a crew of pickpockets.  Her goal is to join the Guild and make a place for herself in their organisation.  She will have to go beyond her skills, mostly so for her young age, to prove that she can be an asset.

As I think you can gather from that list, the terms stereotypical, common tropes and deja-vu can easily come to mind. However, with so many of them thrown into the same bag, you get a mouthful of storylines of interest with some links forming between some of them. To the author's credit, things are not always as they appear and effortlessly, I grew fond of some of them.  They are not one dimensional human beings.  Even if only half of them compel you, you get your money's worth with this ambitious project.

Not all the characters are developed with the same level of care or introspection but it's probably a sign that the following book will put the spotlight on the less central cast members. The book feels as if the author had a story in mind with these seven heroes and wanted to write their origin story first before getting into the core of it. I would almost add another protagonist to the list, Steelhaven itself, as a meta-character. In Ford's book, instead of discovering the city through the eyes of the characters, we observe them through the eyes of the city.  The author clearly loves the city/world he created which is not a bad thing.

Magic doesn't have a great role to play but its boundaries are well defined.  As for the world outside of the city, it looks like a classic case of Eastern vs Western influences and precarious balance. Sadly, for me and maybe for more readers, the lack of a central premise is a disappointment. Herald of the Storm isn't opening new paths in the Fantasy canon but it's doing well in familiar grounds. As for Richard Ford's writing, the pace and prose are effective and consistent, an easy read.

Technically, I have to praise the cover for the Headline edition of the novel, reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie's bloody weapons and maps covers that I like so much. The paperback edition of the books stand at 400 pages. No maps of the city are included.

Herald the Storm review rating :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


Davieboy said...

Good review of a fine debut novel. I vouch for the audiobook version too.

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