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Monday, July 7, 2008

"A Darkness Forged in Fire" by Chris Evans

Order “A Darkness Forged In FireHERE + HERE (UK-September 1, 2008)
Read An Excerpt
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s INTERVIEW with Chris Evans

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Chris Evans was born in Canada and now lives in New York City. He's a historian as well as an editor of military history and current affairs for Stackpole Books. “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is his first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: In an unforgiving world of brutal conflict—where musket and cannon, bow and arrow, magic and diplomacy are all weapons in the Calahrian Empire—there’s no denying that Konowa Swiftdragon, former commander of the Empire’s Iron Elves, could be looked upon as anything but ordinary. He’s murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and finally been banished to the one place he despises the most—the forest. Now all he wants is to be left alone . . . but for Konowa, nothing is ever that simple.

A falling Red Star in the east heralds the return of magic long vanished from the earth, sparking a frantic race within the Empire to reach it first. Now Konowa is recalled to duty and asked to reform the Iron Elves—only the soldiers he gets aren’t quite what he was expecting. And worse, their key adversary to obtain the Star is none other than the dreaded Shadow Monarch—a legendary elf-witch whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine…

CLASSIFICATION:A Darkness Forged in Fire” is a clash of two different worlds. On one side you have elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, dragons, powerful magic and other classic fantasy trappings that recall Terry Brooks and J.R.R. Tolkien. On the other side you have muskets, cannons, howitzers, military tactics, Her Imperial Majesty, and so on that are taken right out of the Napoleonic Era, not unlike Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Combined, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is a cross between traditional epic fantasy and military fiction, with enough elements of either one to appeal to readers of both. However, aside from the graphic violence and some realistic military behavior, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” was not as gritty as I was expecting. In fact, the novel is quite mainstream—no bad language, zero sex and a surprising amount of humor, not to mention the animals :)—and falls more in the spectrum of Terry Brooks than it does Glen Cook.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 432 pages divided over fifty-six chapters. Narration is in the third-person alternating between the main protagonist Konowa Swift Dragon and various supporting characters including Private Alwyn Renwar, the evil Viceroy Faltinald Gwyn and the Elfkynan witch Visyna Tekoy. “A Darkness Forged In Fire” is mostly self-contained, but is the first book in The Iron Elves series—currently projected at three volumes—with Book Two scheduled for publication in 2009.

July 8, 2008 marks the US Hardcover publication of “A Darkness Forged in Fire” via
Pocket Books The UK edition will be released September 1, 2008 via Simon & Schuster. Cover designed by Mary Austin Speaker.

ANALYSIS: Like many debuts before it, Chris Evan’sA Darkness Forged in Fire” is a novel full of promise—and disappointment. Of the former, the author specifically set out to write a fantasy that celebrated the genre, yet was different, and in this regard I thought Chris succeeded. So even though “A Darkness Forged in Fire” features elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, dragons, a great evil in the Shadow Monarch, magical artifacts, ghosts, and a quest, the book feels fresh because of its Napoleonic-influenced setting and military bent, the latter of which I particularly enjoyed because of Chris’ attention to detail and realism. Of course, considering Chris’ experience in editing military history, it’s really no surprise that the novel’s martial elements were one of the book’s strengths, although I felt the author’s approach—in language, morality, the behavior of the soldiers, and the horrors of war—was a bit tame compared to other military fiction that I’ve read.

Now mixing military fiction with fantasy is not exactly a new concept, but the idea of elves serving in Her Imperial Majesty’s Army is. Specifically Chris gives us the Iron Elves, a regiment of dyskara—elves touched (born with a black ear tip) by the Shadow Monarch, forsaken by nature, and destined for the elf-witch’s realm—who are trying to prove their worth in spite of their taint, and were the finest soldiers in the Calahrian Imperial Army before the scandal forced them to be disbanded. What’s interesting about this setup is that the elves of the Hyntaland are loyal subjects of the Queen, who has oppressed the elfkynan—sort of a cousin to the elves—who in turn harbor a deep resentment toward elves. So there’s this whole elf-elfkynan-human dynamic going on—not to mention dwarves, dyskara and the Long Watch—which becomes really interesting when the Iron Elves are reformed with a bunch of humans and a dwarf :)

Besides the setting and military aspects, other strengths include the descriptive prose, the short chapters and quick pacing, imaginative flora/fauna—rakkes, muraphants, sreexes, brindos, bengars, dog-spiders, korwird, bara jogg—some entertaining animal characters (Jir, Wobbly), and amusing wholesome laughs like a drunken pelican and such quotes as the following: “As me grandmare used to say, keep your musket and your pecker clean and you’re likely to live to a ripe old age.” —Private Yimt Arkhorn on the importance of taking care of your musket ;)

Negatively, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” disappoints in a number of areas, most notably the plot which is painfully simple and mainly revolves around the fallen Eastern Star and various factions—the Shadow Monarch, Prince Tykkin, rebel elfkynan, the Long Watch, etc—racing against each other to find it first, leading to a predictable convergence at Luuguth Jor. What’s worse though are the subplots involving the Viceroy, the Duke of Rakestraw, and Corporal Kritton which are vastly underdeveloped; and a surprise twist at the end that is not very surprising.

Another weakness is the characters, specifically the main narratives. One problem is that Konowa Swift Dragon, Private Alwyn Renwar, Viceroy Faltinald Gwyn and Visyna Tekoy aren’t as interesting or have as much personality as the dwarf Private Yimt Arkhorn, the Imperial Weekly Herald Scribe Rallie Synjyn, or Konawa’s friend Duke Jaal Edrahar of Rakestraw. In fact, I think Chris could have done away with the Viceroy and Alwyn altogether and been better off with Yimt, Rallie or the Duke. Another problem is the lack of depth—very little of the characters' pasts is visited, motives are vaguely explored, internal conflicts fail to live up to their potential, etc—and feeble character interaction that fails to develop relationships like the growing attraction between Konowa & Visyna or the bond between Alwyn & Yimt. Then there’s the supporting cast which may have featured some really strong characters in Yimt, Rallie and Jaal, but was offset by the one-dimensional Prince Tykkin, the Shadow Monarch, Jurwan Leaf Talker, Kritton and so on.

Lastly, I had an issue with the worldbuilding. For all intents and purposes, the backdrop introduced in “A Darkness Forged in Fire” seems fascinating, but so little of it is actually explored in detail: Who is the Shadow Monarch? How did She become the feared elf-witch? Why and how does She mark the dyskara? Why are elves able to bond with Wolf Oaks? Why are the Silver Wolf Oaks so rare? What are the Stars and their purpose? What is the history of the Long Watch? The history of the Calahrian Empire? The Pure Order? The elfknya? What about the dwarves? The orcs? How were the original Iron Elves formed? What were some of their exploits? And so on… In short, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” leaves the reader asking more questions than answering them, but hopefully this is an area that will be resolved in the sequels.

CONCLUSION: Even though Chris Evans’ debut novel has its share of problems and doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by Lynch, Rothfuss, Abercrombie, Durham or Ferrari, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is a solid first effort—a book that readers of fantasy can enjoy and that the author should be proud of—and the start to a series that should only get better…


Jeff C said...

Robert..sounds like you had pretty much the same opinion as me (though yours was better worded :) ). I did actually like Alwyn as much as Yimt. I almost wish the book had been based around those 2, using them to expose the impending war.

Robert said...

Yeah, our thoughts were pretty similar :) As far as Alwyn, I always thought Yimt was really the star of Alwyn's narrative, and it should have just been told via Yimt's POV. Then again, maybe Chris has something specific planned for Alwyn, so we'll just have to wait and see...

Anonymous said...

Jir is proably the collest thing in the book

Anonymous said...

yea it was an ok book but i hope the next is better jir is awsome!

Ben Wallace said...

I thought the first 2 books were great I loved every minute but it just left me wanting more, any ideas when the third book is out? Read first book twice and finished second and need the third...

Unknown said...

Book three alwyn becomes a major part


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