David Chandler sent me an email asking if I would be willing to review his new book, Den of Thieves, the first book in the Ancient Blades Trilogy. He said it was in the swords and sorcery style, part of a three book series, where each book will be released two months from each other. My first thought was "Shit, free book, I'm all for it." My second thought was that I was glad someone was trying to keep that style of fiction alive. I'm tired of epic fantasy, I think it's been done to death. I felt the Black Company lost its way after the first three books, and George R.R. Martin gives me a headache with all the complexity. The best series I am reading now are the Dresden books, by Jim Butcher.
When you think of swords and sorcery, its scary to realize that an author today has to compete against the greats---like Leiber, Moorcock, and Howard. These people are legends. That's because there just aren't that many people writing good swords and sorcery style books these days. With that in mind, I started reading his book, prepared to be disappointed by comparison to the Godfathers of S&S.
Far from being disappointed, I'm happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Without giving away too many spoilers, the main character comes from nothing, bastard child of a whore, surviving by quick wits and quicker feet. You can't say he's "a lover, not a fighter," because he's neither. He's just a guy trying to get by in a harsh unforgiving world. The book is set entirely in a city, reminiscent of Lankhmar, where life is cheap. Magic is mysterious and to be feared, takes a harsh toll on its practitioners, and was much more powerful in the past than the present. Religion really does not dominate the story at all.
There are elves and dwarves, but they are not what you would expect at all. Only the dwarves are represented in this book, and only by one character. They seem to be rare indeed.
There is one ancient order of knighthood, given 7 blades with which to slay demons, but even they have fallen. One of the side conflicts of the book has to do with a knight who essentially said "fuck these vows, I'm gonna get mine." He kept his sword, and puts it in service to the highest bidder. Even the virtuous knight of the story is shown to be weak through self-delusion about the world around him.
The story itself has several twists and turns, and the hero of the story has to basically think his way out of situations, fighting only when he has to, while avoiding several groups who all want his head for one reason or another. Through it all, he does what he has to do to survive, forced by self-preservation to make harsh decisions.
That being said, it's not all grim and dirty. There were several funny moments, and interesting supporting characters, like the women of the whore house the main character grew up in, and a ghostly presence I won't say too much about, so as not to ruin your fun. I also like the moments of perspective the author gives his characters, so that you understand who they are and why they are that way. It makes it a much richer read than I expected.
The book moves along at a good pace, and I never once found myself getting bored. About my only criticism was that the main character spoke much more eloquently that I would have expected, given his background. Also, the accent of the ghost took a bit of getting used to.
This is a book that turns certain themes on their heads. The main rogue is not dashing, good looking, or rich. You question whether the "princess to be rescued" is even worth saving. The fallen are not redeemed. The virtuous are not worthy of admiration. Yet in spite of all that, or perhaps because of all that, it's a damn good read.
It reminds me of Moorcock saying that his Elric character was like the anti-King Arthur. Weak, from a decadent empire, and destroyed his homeland--- as opposed to strong, from Camelot, and protector of the realm. Chandler does something similar with this book, and pulls it off rather well.
I think it was a very good book, and I am looking forward to the next one. It seems to be available now on Amazon, though the official release date is August 11. The series website is www.ancientblades.com