Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Arron of the Black Forest Book 1 by Philip Athans & Mel Odom

I've stated numerous times that I think the future of ebook genre fiction isn't going to be massive, ponderous tomes written by folks like the late Robert Jordan or Tom Clancy (who's still kicking around). It's going to be a renaissance of short, easily digestible works that go for cheap bucks, and pack a lot of game time into a low page count. We'll be back to the days of the short novel / novella series, produced a volume every couple of months, and eagerly snapped up by readers as soon as they become available.

Arron of the Black Forest, Book 1: The Haunting of Dragon's Cliff, written by Philip Athans and Mel Odom, is the first volume in just such a series.  Although there's no word count, my guesstimate is the work clocks in somewhere around 30,000 words, or 116 pages as estimated by Amazon.  Our protagonist is - wait for it - Arron of the Black Forest, last of his people, a wandering adventurer and barbarian without a home. Arron's people were all killed when the magicians of the more civilized lands to the south conjured up an enormous glacier right on top of them, instantly encasing the entire population in a thousand-foot tall block of ice.  Arron is the only one who wasn't caught in this icy apocalypse, and now he wanders the lands, really pissed off.

In The Haunting of Dragon's Cliff, Arron has been spending the last month fleeing from a posse / band of bounty hunters tracking him down for killing a man in a bar fight. Arron is eventually driven to seek shelter within Dragon's Cliff, an enormous, abandoned mansion (on the edge of a cliff) shunned by all the locals because it is haunted. However, Arron isn't a local and even if he was, he's desperate enough to flee anywhere.  So into the Mansion he goes, and soon, the posse / band of bounty hunters follows him inside. I won't give away any spoilers, but let's just say that Arron & Co. have a terrifying adventure that's a whole lot weirder than anyone was expecting.

The Haunting of Dragon's Cliff was pretty entertaining. There's some good action and adventure, the Mansion and its "residents" are pretty cool, and I think this has definite promise as a new adventure series. The fights are pretty gory and the description of the Mansion itself, along with it's "special properties" was nicely done as well.

My biggest quibble, and it's really just a quibble, is with the character of Arron. Philip Athans speaks about his interpretation of the various sub-genres of fantasy in an article here. I agree with a lot of what he says, but I don't really agree with the Barbarian Hero as an "everyman". In some ways yes, the BH is the protagonist that the reader "relates" to in that we see the strange, exotic fantasy world more or less through their eyes, confronted with the strange and wonderful, the magical and the dangerous. But historically, the BH is in no way an "everyman".

In practically every depiction of a Barbarian Hero - and this has its roots deeply seated in Robert E. Howard's Conan and his other savage protagonists - the BH is a primordial ubermensch.  The BH's life has been one of unceasing danger and hardship, Darwinism at its finest, and as a result the BH is stronger, faster, and capable of enduring more punishment than any "civilized" man. Their senses are sharper, their survival instincts more keenly honed, and their will utterly indomitable.  We cheer for the Barbarian Hero, and we might react the same way he does to the exotic, degenerate world around him, but let's face it; we've got more in common with the soft, decadent, civilized folk the BH sneers at than we do with the Hero himself.

That having been said, I don't find Arron either an "everyman" hero or a primordial ubermensch.  He's more of a hearty yokel with an angsty chip on his shoulder and a capacity for absorbing a lot of punishment, and much of that capacity (mini spoiler here) is granted seemingly by the Mansion itself.  I feel like the writers wanted Arron to be more badass than your typical home town hero, but not as over-the-top as a Conan or Thongor.  I'm not really sure if the result works for me. This is compounded by the fact that although Arron is repeatedly referred to as a "barbarian" by the more "civilized" folk, the world itself doesn't seem exotic and ancient enough to have classical barbarians a la Conan or Kull. The setting seems to fall into a mid 1700's Western civilization time period; no one wears armor, swords seem more saber-like than a classic broadsword and battleaxe era, and the look and feel of the Mansion itself is very 18th century colonial mansion. If Arron were described more as a sort of wild, Scottish Highlander-esque sort of fellow, coming down into the civilized lands from the "glens" or the "moors" (the Black Forest is described as a "bogland" but that's about it), I think the reader could comfortably attach cultural and historical analogues here and there, which is, I feel, rather important to facilitate immersing oneself in the story when there's not much world-building to be done.

Hmmm, all the above seems far more negative than I intended. Like I said at the beginning, the story is a fast, fun, entertaining read well worth the price of admission, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. When the second issue comes out I'll be sure to snap it up and review it as well. Perhaps as time goes on, the issues I have with Arron and the world he lives in will iron themselves out.

1 comment:

Hank Brown said...

I think writing a barbarian hero full of angst is a bad call. And I guess it's hard to go wrong with ubermensch protags when writing hack-and-slash.