[Full disclosure: Dave is a personal friend.]
I wouldn’t exactly call myself an avid fantasy reader. While I greatly enjoy some entries in the genre, I’ve sampled many of the best-selling fantasy series and found them wanting. I only have so much patience for yet another repackaging of Tolkein: the unlikely hero, living a peaceful life in an idyllic region far removed from the world’s problems, finds a long-lost (or hidden) relic of great power, which attracts the wise old magician who sets the hero up with some motley companions and sends them on a long quest to challenge the rising power of the Big Bad. Along the way they fall into peril, they’re separated and nearly defeated, and the hero learns to wield a great power long forgotten in polite society. Ho hum.
Some of these are certainly tropes of the genre and relatively unavoidable, but good fantasy finds new and inventive ways of presenting the tropes. I’m pleased to say that The Shattergrave Knights, recently self-published by attorney and fellow Philadelphian David M. Haendler, does just that. The story follows Jack and Olive Merriwether, twins from the tiny hamlet of Muddy Hollow who are caught up in adventure when a simple act of kindness draws the ire of a paranoid and overreaching government. A quest to rescue their parents from extraordinary rendition leads to revelations about the history of the Protectorate and the Merriwether’s own sinister ancestry.
Haendler is very aware of the tropes he’s using, and plays with them in creative ways that are often unexpected. At the center of the story is the clever (and new, to my understanding) idea of magic as a foreign language, in which incorrect conjugation can have disastrous results. Early on the benefits of magic seem limited to the powers of a good invisibility cloak, but as the story progresses the reader enters more novel territory, including a prison where the particularly disturbing (and somewhat allegorical) implications of such magic on incarceration are revealed.
In my opinion, good speculative fiction should always reveal something about the real world, and here The Shattergrave Knights does not disappoint. Along with its statements about incarceration and indoctrination, there are shades of Phillip Pullman in the Protectorate, the ruling body of Jack and Olive’s world, and of classic dystopian fiction in The Thirteenth Division, which applies the Bush Administration’s policy of Total Information Awareness to a sword-and-sorcery society. In the tradition of His Dark Materials, Jack and Olive find many clues that suggest their government is not what it appears to be, and by the end I was left questioning whether any of the supposed “good guys” – from the Protectorate to the twins’ patron deity – were really the good guys at all.
Haendler is a talented writer whose prose flows smoothly. Though he shows capable use of imagery, he is more storyteller than poet, which will suit most fantasy readers just fine. He has a particular knack for action sequences, writing them clear and exciting but not overly lengthy – though perhaps a bit over-reliant on the last-second reversal of fortune as a dramatic technique. His characters are interesting and well-drawn, a bit flat by E.M. Forster’s definition but deeper and more complex than many in the genre.
The story moves fast and becomes increasingly more original, playing to convention in the first act but gradually breaking free to explore exciting new territory. If I have any complaint, it’s with an ending that is a bit too abrupt and tidy. While The Shattergrave Knights is clearly intended as the first of several Merriwether novels, the book shifts quickly from its climax to a stopping point that feels a bit forced.
While I would not promote The Shattergrave Knights as a genre-buster, it is a robust and satisfying read for readers of epic fantasy. Fans of dystopian fiction, like myself, are likely to be more excited by the possibilities suggested for future novels than by the content of this first installment. A strong showing for a new author, The Shattergrave Knights is unlikely to be the last – or the most intriguing – Merriwether novel.