These days when I pick up a new fantasy book, I invariably experience some low-level trepidation about whether I will stick with it to the end. The older I get, the fussier I become and increasingly I put down more books at the 5-10% mark than I ever have before – whether they are traditionally published or self-published, it is the same. Needless to say, whenever I find a book that grabs me, the old ticker bounds with jubilation! From the very first page of David Benem's What Remains of Heroes I knew I'd found a tale I could lose myself in.
And it didn't disappoint.
In the first chapter, lead character, Lannick, is well in his cups when he is swept along by two young women seeking to use him for rather 'carnal' purposes. In the back of my mind, an alarm bell rung as I wondered how women would be conveyed throughout the story, but those concerns were very quickly put to bed (excuse the pun). What later niggled me, if I am to be picky, was the convenience of that initial exchange. I would have preferred it if the women had purposely sought our MC, rather than simply happening across him. But, in truth, I think that's the nit-picking author part of my brain speaking, rather than the don't-sweat-the-small-stuff reader part. It's a minor quibble, and what plot doesn't have a trivial element of 'convenience' about it at some point?
Thanks to the nefarious politicking of the higer-ups in the world of Rune, Lannick's history is coming for him, whether he likes it or not, and while it's a major and intriguing thread of the story, one of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the cast of other point of view characters. Karnag, for a start, is the leader of a band of hired killers. He's gruff and blunt and everything you'd expect an experienced assassin to be. He leads his band to their next target, but an unexpected encounter sees him morphing into a strange dark and powerful entity, and his band member and friend Fencress Fallcrow is forced on centre stage to help him.
Not only does Fencress Fallcrow have one of the best names ever, she's also a quietly efficient killer, an astute gambler and, as it turns out, a natural leader. When Karnag develops his new penchant of frolicking in death – even building a macabre temple out of human parts (ewww!) – we understand the other members of their little band of assassins when they want to take their gold and split. But Fencress refuses to abandon Karnag. He is, after all, her one true friend, and she duly whips the other young-pup assassins into line with some snappy dialogue, "No one wrongs us and lives to boast about it... Never provoke the most dangerous beast."
No decent fantasy book is complete without an institute comprised of stuffy old men, tinkering with potions and pouring over dusty tomes, and we're soon introduced to the Abbey of the Ancient Sanctum and another point of view character, the wizened and seen-it-all-before Prefect Gamghast, who, while a Sanctum Elder, is somewhat of a dissenter, suspicious of the grab for power by certain pretenders in the royal court as well as the Sanctum. When he receives a secret visitor in the middle of the night – a personage of veritable import – his fears for the future stability of the realm are validated and he must make a choice.
While in the Sanctum, we're also introduced to my favourite character, Acolyte Zandrachus Bale, who we first meet sneezing in the dusty ancient library. Bale is a favourite, not only because he goes about mumbling about how much he "hates people," but also because he is a most unlikely hero forced to undertake a quest to find a certain Sanctum elder's magical remains. Bale's trepidation is very human and his plans are frequently thwarted, and I liked him a lot.
This review hasn't given much of the plot away, and I know why. I enjoyed this book mostly because of the close proximity to the characters the narrative invokes. The story is an intriguing one, but it's the characters who made it so enjoyable for me. I also enjoyed the magic system, which provides an intriguing and compelling 'reveal', and will continue to build and fascinate, I suspect, with the next book in the series. The antagonists are certainly there, though there's room for development and I look forward to learning more about the necrists as well as General Fane's motivations.
The world of Rune and its neighbours. More information on Benem's blog.
The world is rich and full of history that is peppered throughout the story in the form of tidbits here and there. And if you love a good tavern scene served with your fantasy (as I do) this is definitely a book for you. There's inns and taverns all over the place and Benem put a lot of thought into their names. There's The Wanton Vicar, The Dead Messenger and The Wolf at the Window. Wonderful!
What Remains of Heroes is a compelling read that incorporates familiar elements of the genre, without feeling tired or stale. Pick it up when you want a read in which you can trust the author to do his job and take you on an epic tale of grim adventure and magic, with characters you'll like and a world you can lose yourself in.