Starting off, you will notice impressive world maps. I always spend way too much time reading and gazing at fantasy world maps at the beginnings of books with other-world settings.
Then, throughout my reading I am constantly waiting for specific locations on the maps to be mentioned in the text. When some locations are left out, as often happens in multi-book series, I am left in a state of perpetual angst until I learn more about the unexplored territories, all of which are entirely imaginary. If an author has the gall to include locations which are never mentioned in the text at all, then I must commend them on their world building. The map suddenly becomes a piece of a much larger world map, like the infinite foggy, unrendered outlines in RPG video games.
I would describe the world building here as top-notch. In some senses, making use of a classic revenge plot, The Phantom’s Vengeance does play with the reader’s expectations at specific key points in the story. At bottom it epitomizes an appreciation for the intricacies of the Sword and Sorcery genre. The Golden Age of that genre has passed, though if it felt too canonical it would have lacked the modern grit. What I deem modern grit is a touch of blood splatter darkening the pages, a few well-placed instances of profanity, and a relatable main character who possesses more than 0.3 dimensions. That is, I look for emotional development within the confines of the plot, where the character does things, makes decisions, and then lives with the decisions, often with a measurable amount of discomfort. It’s not just a bit of killing, repenting, betraying and stabbing – though there is plenty of that, don’t get me wrong – you will recognize and be surprised by a significant level of intricacy, of layers, easily discernible beneath the grit. I am referring to subtext, without which many a Hollywoodized novel hath been forgotten (by me).
Add to this well-honed, pulse-elevating action scenes. But not too many. If there had been more, I might have been tempted to skip a few. But I wasn’t. The first chapter, to be critical, contains a dream sequence, which technique I condemn. But the scene passes quickly, and does its job. Soon enough, we’ve our feet planted in an alternate universe, chilling in its baroque verisimilitudes.
All of it is rich with atmospheric details. The author has a tendency to start each chapter section off with a zoom in effect. Bringing up the light, and the trees, the season and the gloaming. I suffer from this need to establish the set-pieces in my own writing and recognize an imagistic approach when I see one. That is not to say I disapprove. Wholeheartedly, I loved most, if not all, of the environmental content, frilled and extrapolated as it is. With traces of Medieval implements gleaming in the background and plentiful shadows rife with ominous concealment.
To experience this tale is to enter a dark and dread-filled world where a blade is as necessary as water and life is a constant struggle against physical threats. That sentence could describe almost any dark fantasy, but would it be a dark fantasy if it couldn’t? Battlefields, swamps, and ravaged towns, overseen by jaded gods, a foreign land lies embroiled in a complex network of internecine feuds, divisions, and tenuous alliances. Maintaining the status quo of a viable livelihood necessitates a war against the forces which impede on every side, fueling an existence indistinguishable from a nightmare. Such is the plight of our hero.
The military movements side by side with the domestic details, offer a breath between actiony episodes. The high fantasy tropes are employed with aplomb, without reserve, toward a focused structure, and within a breathtaking setting. Religion, warfare, comradeship, family, hope, and vengeance, all take their turns on the stage. The hunt, the nomadic way of life, and the soldier’s duties, all fall within our main character’s purview. The perspective is accompanied by a yearning for an escape from the daily carnage toward an elegiac ideal we might recognize as the concept of peace within any given fantastic realm. This dreamy reverie is the incarnation of our deep longing for the mystery and allure of childhood and might be detected in most unabashedly fantastical works since Tolkien. Put simply, an exotic nostalgia is evoked thereby.
Warhorses clad in gleaming black steel, a land forged in violence, rooted in slaughter, but not bereft of the essential characteristics of historical human striving. Loyalty, endurance, conspiracy, treason, rebellion, overlapping expansive locales, interwoven with world building nuggets, well-paced without too much internal monologue, but enough relaxed expositions between the quick scenes that often kick the plot into high gear.
I am reminded in some respects of Way of Kings, due to its depiction of a war, its characters trapped in a cycle of survival. The sword and shield feed Danio’s family. The economies, political structures, laws, and religions are simply window dressing to the core tale. But what a splendid array.
To top it off we’re given a hint of romance, a polytheistic cosmogony, a vivid conjuration of an imagined time and place, convincing in its sophisticated portrayal of warriors and its aesthetic consistency. It is composed of familiar elements but compelling in the way it congeals into a story with universal appeal.
This book ponders the consequences of revenge, and in the psychological dimensions of the characters succeeds in establishing a believable and immersive experience capable of transporting the most jaded escapist among us. The exterior and interior navigation of our protagonist should interest the literary, who will enjoy the central moral dilemma. While the adventurous will savor the well-choreographed battles. The author demonstrates a gift for balanced storytelling, and has produced a first book suitable for fans of Game of Thrones.