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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"The Sword and the Dragon" by M.R. Mathias (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official M.R. Mathias Website
Order "The Sword and the Dragon" HERE(Kindle) or HERE(Smashwords) or HERE(print)
Read an Extended Excerpt (~100k words or ~43%) from the novel HERE

INTRODUCTION: Several weeks ago I wanted to find some new independent books to read - I did some posts about the ones reviewed by me and Mihir in 2010 - and I spent an hour or two checking Smashwords sff books: blurb, first page and then random pages from the excerpt if interested.

Out of maybe 50 novels I looked at, The Sword and the Dragon was the only one that intrigued me since despite the traditional sounding blurb, the first page attracted me and then I liked what I read in the random pages I tried. I downloaded the extensive excerpt linked above - at about 100k words it is as long as a regular novel - and I read it and then I bought the full book.

The Sword and the Dragon is the debut of the author and the first novel in The Wardstone trilogy of which the second book is early next year, but it tells a pretty complete story in itself ending the main threads introduced here while planting the hooks for the next volumes.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: The Sword and the Dragon is available only electronically for now and it stands at about 235k words, so the equivalent of ~700 print pages. There are 59 numbered chapters and an Epilogue, while the main POV's are the two Skyler brothers Hyden and Gerard, the squire Mikahl and to a lesser extent the wizard Pael and his daughter Shaella. Several other secondary characters get interlude-like segments that present the happenings in various places outside of the main characters' locations at the time. A map of the novel's mainland kingdoms is available HERE, though there are hints of distant places and people.

The Sword and the Dragon is true epic fantasy with all the tropes associated - dragons, elves, wizards, giants, dwarves, fairies, trolls, lizard people, zombies, quests, destined heroes, dastardly villains, powerful demons that are ready to escape their containment and bring evil to the world, magical animals, people that can talk with animals, kings, lords, warriors, you name it, it is probably there - that manages to be absolutely fresh and zany with some great twists. I want to emphasize again that while there will be a sequel soon, The Sword and the Dragon ends its main arc so it is a standalone part of a greater tapestry.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Gerard Skyler used his free arm to wipe the sweat from his brow before it had a chance to drip into his eyes. Scaling the towering, nesting cliff for the second time was far harder than he had expected it to be. No one had attempted the climb two days in a row before. His body was still sore and raw from yesterday’s climb, but he could not afford to stop and rest. He was more than three hundred feet above a rocky canyon floor. A fall would undoubtedly be fatal. The last thing he needed, at the moment, was burning eyes and blurred vision."

So the novel starts and I liked the above paragraph so I kept reading and got hooked on the story. In essence The Sword and the Dragon is set to be the replay in the present of the novel of events of long ago, when escaped demons brought darkness to the world until a king with a magic sword made by dwarves, giants and elves working together - races that tend to dislike each other and humanity to boot - and a sorcerer that could talk with animals, united all the living things to defeat evil and imprison the nasty demons with a powerful dragon guarding the Seal.

But the dragon was smart enough not to want to be trapped for ever in guarding the portal to the underworld, so she put in an escape clause that will trigger when humans start doing some bad things; enter evil wizard Pael who is set to use dark magic, nasty tricks and the wiles of his daughter Shaella to put in motion events that will lead to the breaking of the seal...

Well, so it goes but what if Shaella actually falls in love with the "sacrifice boy" that Pael needs at a crucial moment, or what if the story as retold is not quite complete missing some ingredients, or what if a key magic artifact goes to the wrong brother and the magic sword loses its magic and goes to the wrong heir? Read the novel and you will find out some answers...

Hoping that the above will give you an inkling why I found
The Sword and the Dragon so much fun, I want to talk a bit about the actual execution of the storyline above. The first thing I noticed about The Sword and the Dragon is that it's a true work of love from the author. The world of the novel is described in quite a lot of detail, while the characters have a lot of pages that allow us to get to know them. However the book mixes well descriptions with action, so I never felt the narrative flow stalling.

The Sword and the Dragon starts with essentially two threads, one following the life of two of the secretive Skyler clan youngsters: brothers Gerard and Hyden and one following the squire Mikahl trying to fulfill the last wishes of his protector plus some "behind the scenes" action from Pael that sets the scene so to speak, but at some point it manages to skilfully switch the threads into the more familiar ones - quest to stop the bad guys - though not without introducing some twists in the narrative. The Sword and the Dragon manages to keep the balance between the threads and when as expected things start converging, the tension ratchets up and the book becomes impossible to put down till the end.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a high level of editing for a quite long independent novel - there are some little mistakes here and there and occasionally character names are misspelled a little but no typo stands out. While a traditional fantasy in many respects, The Sword and the Dragon does not shy from explicit language when appropriate and characters, even ones readers may get to like may die or be transformed in unexpected ways.

Overall The Sword and the Dragon (A+) is an impressive debut - a traditional fantasy that manages to be fresh and a novel that while it is the start of a series, it succeeds in offering a complete reading experience. I suggest to try the extended sample linked above and if you love it as I did, get and read it!


Hamm said...

Great review, I am also interested in checking out independent fantasy and am happy that you posted your method for finding items worth reading.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; we receive a bunch of review requests here too and I found out about some favorite novels that way, but I like exploring and Smashwords with their extended excerpts and ease of access (dld in various formats, read online) is a great place to explore.

I have to check out the Kindle forums though since I am sure there are more independent novels available on the Kindle - and you do not need a Kindle, just Kindle for PC(Mac) to check samples from there plus geographical availability, but in the indie case the author should be crazy to restrict it - than on Smashwords and see how to easily explore those

There are also a ton of small presses and i try to keep track of as many as I can that publish sff even if they are not focused on it

Richard R. said...

Too bad about the cover, anyone spotting this at a glance isn't going to be pulled in by it.

Liviu said...

The book being only electronic for now, the cover is less importnat, while if the author will do a print edition it may change.

Personally, I was not that excited about the blurb, but the first paragraph quoted in the review pulled me in by its "mundanity".

Anyway the extended excerpt available should be enough to decide if one wants to read or not the book - 100,000 words is about the equivalent of 300 pages...

Gem said...

This sounds really interesting. I am not really versed in independent books but your review makes me want to check out more independent books and do some research on what is out there

Derrick said...

Having interacted with the author on various forums, I can say that I won't be reading this book.
It might be a fantastic book, but with what I've seen of his online behavior, it isn't worth it.

C. Bailey Sims said...

I am intrigued by this review and will be reading this book. Thank you.

jeremy said...

Your review couldn't be more wrong. The story is fine, but the writing is terrible. You mentioned the author's ability to skillfully detail the realm in which the characters exist? Where we even reading the same book? The thing that separates Jordan, Martin, Donaldson, and Tolkien is that they are fantasy writers, who also write great literature. This just doesn't stand up. I'm not sure this guy even knows how to construct a compound sentence.

Fantasy Reader said...

Jeremy, with all respect toward your opinion, if it so bad then why is it in the "Top 100 Highest Rated" epic fantasy at the number one book seller in the world. (I saw that in a tweet and followed it up. It is true. #75, I think and that is the unrevised edition. The Revised edition is #77 Highest Rated of ALL epic fantasy at Amazon.)

Books are art, and though they have a standard format, different styles of literature do exist. Just like paintings and poetry. Some are plainly there for all to see, others are colored blobs that represent the artists emotion. Some poetry dosen't rhyme or even make sense.

Mathias wrote this in a prison cell. That alone makes it extrordinary. The fact that he tributes nearly every master of the genre within the trilogy, in a totaly unobvious manner,is even more so.

If you look through the top 100 fantasy listings of the major ebook sellers you'll find this author has about a dozen books ranked, in Mythology, Contemporary, and Epic, fantasy.

Another thing you may not know is that this author won The Reader's Favorite Award for a horror novel he wrote under a different pen name.

This idea that something has to be perfect to be great is silly. Mona Lisa looks like an ugly man yet it is one of the most praised paintings ever.

Thank you, Fantasy Reader

Anonymous said...

Different strokes for different folks...
For me, the greatest story loses all appeal when told in such wooden, lame prose.
In this case I can't even say anything about the story - my patience ran out about in the middle of page 2.

Anonymous said...

Well Anon, it is a good thing the first 300 pages are free. I just finished the Wardstone Trilogy and have no problem understanding why Mathias is so popular at Amazon. I found no wooden, or uneasy prose at all, and the writing just keeps getting better and better as the series progresses.

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