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Monday, October 8, 2012

"The Hammer and the Blade" by Paul S. Kemp (reviewed by David L. Craddock)

* Visit Paul S. Kemp's Blog
* Buy The Hammer and the Blade from Amazon (Paperback | Kindle)
* Reviews for The Twilight War Trilogy by Paul S. Kemp: ShadowbredShadowstormShadowrealm

The Hammer and the Blade starts off with a bang, as all sword-and-sorcery tales should. We join two grave robbers who have delved deep into the earth and stand poised just outside the door to a tomb wherein great treasures await. We then spend a few pages getting to know a bit about the duo while they spring traps, work furiously to free themselves from traps gone awry, and battle the demon set to guard the object of their desire.

What do we learn? We learn their names, Nix and Egil. We learn how their unique skill sets complement each other. Nix is nimble, Nix is quick (of tongue and of blade), and Egil hits things with very big sticks affixed with hammerheads. Also, crowbars. Egil swings a mighty good crowbar. We learn that Egil is a priest, that Nix's reliance on magical bits and bobs makes his brawler friend more than a little nervous, and that these two have formed a powerful on the inside yet playful and teasing on the outside bond over years of narrowly escaping certain death together.

We learn all that in just the prologue, a chapter worthy of grand finales in most books. After finishing the climactic encounter, I had pressing work to do and had to set the book aside for a week. I didn't want to do it, you understand. I had to. Bills to pay, adult responsibilities, and all that. I remember I left off around midway through chapter 3, which sees our heroes shooting the breeze in a tavern. One day in the middle of putting the finishing touches on yet another assignment, I found myself wondering what Egil and Nix were up to.

I took a moment to wonder at the absurdity of that. What were they up to? Why, they were up to whatever they were doing when I left off, frozen in time and waiting for me to turn the page so they might return to their grave-robbing shenanigans. That's when I knew Paul Kemp had me. Most readers fall in love with characters and spend hours, days, or weeks daydreaming about what they're up to after finishing a story. I was smitten to the point of distraction and I hadn't even finished the third chapter.

I finished off my work, picked the book back up, and breezed through the rest of the adventure, bills and deadlines be damned.
The remainder of the story did not disappoint. Palling along with Egil and Nix, I traveled to distant lands, battled stragglers from long-dead civilizations, plundered more crypts, and took on another demon even tougher and more vile than the first. But what I enjoyed most were the quiet moments, like the tavern scene that dominates chapter 3 and the occasions where, after a long day of trekking through burning wastes, the companions were able to gather 'round a campfire with the other members of their party to drink and trade stories.

See, I'm a dialogue man. Pour me a conversation heavy on character development and light on exposition and dialogue tags, and I'll wear my hangover from an all-night reading binge like a badge of honor. Egil, Nix, and the cohorts they pick up along the way pour only the good stuff, and peel back layers of the world and each other as they go along. Never fear! You'll get plenty of action, and a climax that dwarfs even the riveting opening chapter. But more than fighting demons and robbing crypts (wonderfully written scenes, all), I think you'll agree that it is Hammer and the Blade's humanity that makes it such a great adventure.

Moments like those, plentiful yet too scarce for my liking, demonstrate Kemp's firm grasp of what makes a great yarn. The best fantasy stories are about people. Ordinary people, magical people, people who aren't people at all but who possess human-like characteristics and traits that show us something about ourselves when we lean in to examine them. Through conversation complemented by a strong narrative and the mercurial art of short-and-sweet description in just the right places, we see enemies become friends, learn the extent to which friends as close as brothers will go to save one another, and grow close to periphery characters that run a dime a dozen in most fantasy novels but live long enough in this one to endear themselves to us.
By the time we come to the last word in the last paragraph of the last page, that we've seen only a fraction of the thought Kemp, no stranger to writing in shared worlds such as the Forgotten Realms and a galaxy far, far away, put into building a playground of his very own. My one and only complaint is that the story often feels more Nix's and less Egil's. We learn plenty about the burly priest along the way, but I do hope to curl up inside his head and spend some time there come the next book.

And now I wait, quite impatiently, for May 2013 when Egil and Nix return in A Discourse of Steel. Do yourselves a favor long before then and read The Hammer and the Blade. You won't be disappointed.


Anonymous said...

For me, this was definitely an enjoyable book, but it had its problems. Most of which consist of the author's choice of words in a good chunk of the narrative. It seemed to me like a lot of thesaurus overuse, and that often threw me out of the flow of the story.

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