The Darkslayer: An Epic Fantasy, Volume One
Two-Ten Book Press (278 pp, $15, November 2009, kindle edition currently free)
Reviewed by Josh Wimmer
In the city of Bone, on the world of Bish, the warrior Venir and his friend Melegal the thief incur the mortal wrath of a royal family. The adventurers quickly get out of town, but not out of danger: the wicked nobles join forces with the most evil race on Bish, the underlings, to track the duo down and kill them.
Actually, mostly the bad guys are interested in Venir. Which would be cause for concern on his part if the big blond fighter weren’t secretly the underlings’ legendary foe, the Darkslayer.
Craig Halloran gets the macro structure of this self-published novel right. He ably juggles a cast of about two dozen characters, both good and evil, switching between their story lines with the appropriate rhythm. He shows us a good chunk of Bish, too, and delves into its history as well as his protagonist’s. Not only do we see Bone, its more multicultural neighbor Two-Ten City, two forests, and a battle-scarred wasteland, we also follow the escapades of the immortal who created the world out of boredom. And it all comes together comprehensibly and sensibly, and sets up its heroes for future outings. All of that takes work.
But to what end? The first problem with The Darkslayer is that it doesn’t offer seasoned readers of fantasy anything they haven’t seen before, or those new to the genre anything they couldn’t find done better elsewhere. It gives us a hypermuscular blond barbarian and a sarcastic thief who basically mean well, but just can’t resist indulging their vices even if it does get them in trouble. All their friends and foes are fellas, except for one sexy bandit queen. No one’s character is developed beyond a trait or two like “wears a funny-looking hat” or “hates kobolds,” except in Venir’s case: his vendetta against the underlings started when they – yep – slaughtered his village. And every conflict in the story is solved with a fight, usually involving Venir somehow summoning previously untapped reserves of strength.
The book’s second problem has to do with micro-level stuff – just the fundamentals of good writing. Halloran tends to tell much more than show. Rather than figuring out a character is gloomy or surprised because of something he says or does, we have to settle for learning how he feels straight from the narration. For its part, the dialogue consists largely of stock banter (“Who’re you calling fat boy?”) and one character recounting to another events that we’ve already witnessed.
It makes for tiresome reading, and the setting isn’t unique enough, nor are the characters interesting enough, to counter that. This is clearly supposed to be a story with a sense of humor (Venir’s mount is a slobbery two-headed dog; there’s a forest whose trees are triple the normal size, making it appear closer than it really is), but that’s undermined by the flatness of the cast and how viciously and violently the supposed good guys deal with their enemies. The author also hasn’t taken due care. You can’t say “This situation was new to Venir” and then describe the same scenario six pages later as “just another day in the park for the Darkslayer.”
Halloran seems to have more fun with his villains than his heroes, and he is deliciously skilled at describing the atrocities they perpetrate on their helpless victims. He writes battle scenes well, too. But these strengths aren’t enough to compensate for The Darkslayer’s weaknesses.
(Note: The copy I received for review was an early edition, and did not include the illustrations by comic book artist Ernie Chan.)
A slightly different version of this review originally appeared in Black Gate Magazine #15
Josh Wimmer is a writer and editor. He blogs about Hugo-winning novels for io9 and sporadically updates his own website at scribblescribblescribble.com. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife, son, and cat.