Story telling is, at its core, the ability to weave a story populated with relatable characters in a relatable world. The author must connect the reader to his characters, to inspire fascination with their exploits and concern over their misadventures. This is most easily accomplished by creating characters who are like us, or, at the very least, like the way we wish we could be.
This is a task that is complicated by introducing us to realms of fantasy. It is about crafting a place where magic rules, good and evil are clearly defined and nobody spells their names quite right.
In the literary world one book is often compared against another and both of those often find their roots in folktales. As such it is a literary sphere where the characters are often defined in broad, usually stereotypical ways. The true genius behind successful authors and their less heralded kin is providing readers with something familiar enough to be engaging but different enough to want us to read more. Such is the case with Waterford, Vermont author T.L. Barrett's first book Test of a Prince.
The book transports readers to the realm of Jotunheim, a mystical place whose human history is but the thinnest ring on the great world tree. It is a place where the Gods have influence on the worlds of men and beast and fantastic creatures exist just outside the mortal realms.
As if often the case in heroic fantasy, the book begins by introducing us to an unfamiliar place in suitable, bite-sized chunks. The adventure begins in an isolated fishing town where the aged hero Lodon One-Arm dispenses justice as Reeve of the seafolk. Barrett proceeds in turn to bring together the various members of the brave company, presenting glimpses of their world in careful, logical fashion.
It would be easy for an author of fantasy to overwhelm the reader with a complex history of all things Jotunheim, dissecting the local politics to distraction and otherwise presenting us with a tiresome encyclopedic introduction. Barrett chooses to go the other route, filling us in as we go along, letting us absorb the state of affairs as they influence his cast of characters.
And such a cast it is! Brave warriors whose wounds run deep below the skin, a lovely warrior maiden, a cross-dressing satyr, the titular accursed prince and a husband and wife team of clever Mindans -- a diminutive race of people cursed to their present size from their once mighty stature as giants.
Prince Arden has been overthrown from his rightful place atop the throne. Insidious forces of evil have corrupted the kingdom, turning Jotunheim's priests into acolytes of a great and terrible evil. More dire still, the very curse has begin to warp the people of the realm, the good prince among them.
Admittedly Test of a Prince is only the first book in a two part series. Having crafted the work in this manner, Barrett avoids the need to overcomplicate his story line. He also employs a somewhat unique device in largely avoiding a clear definition of the mastermind behind the curse of Nod. Indeed, we are treated to only a cursory glimpse of Malvane, the wicked puppet master behind the realm's malaise.
And yet this does nothing to unravel the story. Indeed, the evil that Malvane has wrought becomes all the more terrible because its influence is so widespread, adopted by the very institutions that should have prevented its rise -- church and crown. Malvane may be the catalyst but the fuel to his wicked machine comes from the baser nature of humanity.
Bit by bit the band of heroes uncovers the depth of the malevolence. It's presence in a temple of healing, the corruption of the nobles and the consummation of all things evil in the lakeside town of Draydock where only the children have escaped its taint.
Any work of fiction, fantasy or otherwise, will be colored by the experiences of the reader. Those who disdain the genres of fantasy or science fiction may find Test of a Prince not to their liking. It wouldn't be because of any particular shortcomings of the author, however. It's simply a matter of taste and preference.
To me, the true measure of a book is how much I care about the characters, whether wishing them well or ill, and whether or not I hope it to be the sort of book I have difficulty putting it down. Certainly there are no small number of books that, once put down are incredibly difficult to pick back up again. I'm looking at you Isaac Asimov.
As I drew near the end of the book, realizing that only 60 pages lay between me and its inevitable conclusion, I found myself despairing that I would not discover a cure to the plague of evil that covers the land. I would not learn if Prince Arden can reverse his curse or, at the very least, take his enemies down with him.
Barrett has taken a genre filled with stereotypes, used some, discarded the rest and woven a tale that is enduring in its own rights. In a genre crowded with mediocrity he has created something memorable and fresh, even if it's only half-way finished.
Barrett's follow-up novel and the conclusion of the series will come in the form of The Vale of Shade due out later this year.