We decided to start something new for our SPFBO7 reads, in order to give each of them a more balanced review. I have recruited a friend, an avid reader who is new to the fantasy genre, and we are both offering responses to the books we read together!
While I am approaching each book from the perspective of an author, and someone who can compare each book to a lifetime of fantasy reading, Nadine has a more fresh and forgiving perspective. We hope that this will make these books appear more appealing to the average reader, who probably has a fantasy reading experience somewhere between us both.
However, we should confess that we both believe that Stranger Back Home is one of the top contenders in this contest. We highly encourage everyone to check that book out, if for no other reason than to see what these other books are competing against.
Our next read was Half Sword, by Christopher Matson. We wanted to check out one of the books with fewer public reviews, and we also reached out to the author before starting.
How did Half Sword compare to the more popular books in this year’s SPFBO contest? Read on to find out!
The Fantasy Genre—Thrill of Discovery
As we read and review fantasy books during this period, we are approaching each story with this core philosophy:
The primary attraction of fantasy stories is to give the reader the thrill of new discovery without the rigors of academia.
Fantasy offers new worlds to explore, history to discover, culture and civilizations and fantastic beasts, and above all a brand new science with brand new rules; and the reader is now the Magellan, the Einstein, the Howard Carter.
A good fantasy story should spread out this discovery, keeping a consistent pace throughout the exposition. The discoveries should make sense to the reader, even if fantastically impossible, and they should always relate back to the plot later in the book.
So, how did Half Sword meet this requirement?
Exposition & Background
ELHaines: I thought the exposition and background is where this book really shone. The setting is a true historic one, during a period in the late Roman Empire when various cultures all over Europe were intermingling. The characters come from various backgrounds, some from the Mediterranean, or from Scandinavia, or from Eastern Europe, and they each bring their unique folklore and superstitions into the conversation.
The magic is subtle and downplayed, which I was fine with. It isn’t until late in the book that we start to see talismans and begin to understand the curse that has been placed on the main character, but it's certainly fascinating.
Everything seemed well-researched and finely-detailed, including the dialect and phrases that made each character unique.
NadineR: I think the author did an amazing job providing us with the world that Simon and Co. were adventuring to. I would compare the level of detail to a Michael Crichton book (wow!) in things big and small, like the mile markers, the geography, and everything.
I think he also describes natural events and the medieval world pretty well, such as the clothing, which is pretty accurate, as I understand it.
For the fantasy element, I liked that he kept the fantasy in the old magic and lore not this wholly whimsical universe. It was like George R.R. Martin’s approach to magic, with old magic and superstitious magic. Magic comes at a cost, like the talismans can’t be used without consequence, and Simon is warned about using them.
ELH: Well, the main character, Simon, goes through some rapid, under-explained transformations. In the first few chapters, I honestly thought that Simon was a child on the autism spectrum. Only a few chapters later, he is a calculating, strategic, formidable warrior.
The other characters were somewhat confusing as well. I’m not so familiar with early European languages that I can distinguish all of their casual insults from one another, and I was also unsure about whether these characters truly hated Simon, or if they were just playfully competitive.
I will say this, though: at least the characters acted rationally and consistently. I never rolled my eyes at anyone’s reaction or response—these were characters worth following.
NR: The characters were intriguing. I liked at the start that Simon was a kind of unreliable narrator. You don’t know how much he knows and you’re unsure if you’re getting an accurate depiction of what’s going on from him.
I like the other characters also, the band. I think the ‘Knights of Palermo’ were interesting.
ELH: The conflict between two mystic groups, the Knights of Palermo and the Apostles of Light, was fairly compelling. The quest to investigate the curse that is shackling Simon and discover his true background was also intriguing.
The author could have cut out a lot of the fluff about breaking in a horse, tending to injuries, and counting the revolutions of the cart wheels, though. A huge portion of the book deals with mundane activity that doesn’t advance the plot, and these were inevitably the chapters where I put the book down.
NR: To be honest, the plot was a little all-over-the-place. I was invested in Simon’s journey at the start, but when we started focusing on the tumbrel and the Knights of Palermo going to Venice…
There were times when the author reminded the reader what was going on [with Simon’s curse] through the characters and their dialogue, which was cool, but I felt that the plot was slow.
ELH: The pace was pretty slow in some parts - there are literally multiple scenes of watching wheels turn.
Due to the slow pace and the addition of irrelevant scenes, I found this book easy to put down at times. Half Sword is a great example of what I’ve come to call walking fantasy (fantasy stories that are mostly about foot travel—such as the hike to Mordor). Give us less campfire setup, and instead get to the mysteries inside the MacGuffin!
NR: At the beginning, it was a page-turner. It drew me in, and I’m sure it drew you in too. But then it starts to drag.
The author is clearly a skilled writer and definitely brings things to life. There are some scenes, like the scene when Simon and Amala, the red-haired girl who was following them, get attacked by a swarm of disgusting flies, and the way he describes it is totally immersive and the reader is absolutely horrified.
The author really is a talented writer, I just wish it hadn’t dragged so much.
Conclusion: Strong Contender
Interesting, well-researched background, mysterious characters, and a compelling plot—these are Half Sword’s strengths. Only occasionally do they stumble due to slow pacing and poorly-written description.
Regardless, I think this book has tremendous promise to advance to the next round of SPFBO. I hope the judges can overcome the obstacles to see the book’s merit.
And of course, check out our own contender, Stranger Back Home!