Paul Francois asked me to read his novel "Shadowbane: Age of Aelfborn". It is an Epic Fantasy focused around finding a legendary sword and reviving a lost kingdom to restore planetary peace. I will examine Plot, Character and Polish.
Note: Yes, this is the same setting as the Shadowbane MMORPG that shut down some years ago. The author says this book is about using that game's lore to tell stories.
Note: There are spoilers in this review. WARNING! WARNING! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!
Okay, now for the review
It starts off with a prologue talking about the world. It is a good start, in my opinion, because it sounds like an epic-storytelling-campfire thing. Considering that bards are so important here, both in the world and the main cast, it makes for a suitable introduction both in and out of universe.
This book basically has two plots: one for Megildur to find his kidnapped sister and then to find a legendary sword. They occur in the same story because the latter is a Mission From God that grants him the authority to tap allies needed for the former, which is strictly personal.
I have mixed feelings about this story's plot. On one hand, it relies heavily on Because Destiny Says So which leads to Foregone Conclusion, Deus Ex Machina and other things that weaken a story. On the other hand, it is possible that this is the only story that follows the trope to its logical conclusion. If Destiny/God/The Powers That Be really said "X is going happen because it is fated to happen" then X is going to happen and those get in the way would be smote with a Bolt of Divine Retribution and that is precisely what happens here.
Then there's another problem. It's a jarring thing at the start at the story's proper. Megildur knows nothing about the world. He doesn't even know about the Tree of Life stuff. One could say his village never needed it, it never came up, he wasn't told etc. but his much older father apparently doesn't know. In the first act, he goes all "you're the man of the family now" while dying even though he knows he's going to immediately respawn nearby. It's an incongruous thing that I can only imagine is meant to make Megildur an Audience Surrogate. Readers who haven't played Shadowbane don't know about the Justified Extra Lives mechanic but they will still find it jarring like I did. Readers who have played it will likely see it as a waste of time.
Speaking of wastes of time, the first several scenes of the second act are basically filler. Megildur respawns at Sea Dog's Rest and Zeristan is all "let's start your adventure!" Megildur refuses and teleports somewhere close to his raided village. He's captured and rescued a couple times and then ends up right back where he started. The only plot progress there is introducing his love interest but that is a brief introduction and she doesn't appear again until the ending. On Tvtropes, we call this Strangled By The Red String.
I'm not quite sure how the ending works, in or out of universe. If the All-Father choose Megildur to recover a sword then why does that redeem all of the world? It can't be a "cooperation" thing because Megildur tried to do it with as few people as possible (though he still has to be bailed out frequently). Also, removing the "Tree of Life respawns" would fundamentally change the setting and so it wouldn't be the same Shadowbane. If this book is about the game's lore then it just made a substantial change to it instead of expanding it.
There's a reliance on Deus Ex Machina. There are three big problems that are saved by explicitly Divine intervention and a fourth where a nameless and faceless character comes out of nowhere and uses a divine-aligned heroic-sacrifice-style spell (not really a sacrifice given the mechanics but he still dies, temporarily). This is another mixed bag sort of thing. On one hand, if the Top God of a setting wanted a character to do X then they would assist them in doing so, right? It just so happens that most stories have this deity assign the mission and then disappear because such a character constantly helping your hero would be a storybreaker. It is, but speaking in-universe it makes a certain amount of sense. It's like non-verbal communication from the All-Father; something like "Seriously, I want this guy to do X. Stop interfering." Then again, this ties into the problem of how did Megildur personally restore his faith in humanity by finding a sword? Anyone could have done this with that kind of assistance.
There are too many questions, plot holes or inconsistencies for me to mention here. At this point, I don't care.
The ending is good. It concludes the book's conflict, ties up a few loose ends, and then points towards And The Adventure Continues.
Megildur, this story's hero and protagonist, is a mixed bag (much like the plot itself). He starts out in relation to his sister. When she's around, his personality is at its most clear. Otherwise, his personality is muddy. This means he often feels like an excuse for exposition about the world or some empty vessel to instigate the cooperation of other characters. I think the author tries to present his relationship with Zabrina as this deeply-romantic, love-at-first-sight (or smell) thing but it is pretty shallow (partly because of her minor screen time). Randomly kissing someone you've just met does not sound like something the champion of a benevolent Deity would do.
He constantly needs to be rescued but given his lack of skills and training (he's a beginner with a sword and dagger and doesn't have anything else) that makes sense and it has the effect of preventing him from being an inexplicably powerful Gary Stu just because he's the Choosen One. I get the sense that he considers his task from the All-Father and future duties as the High King to be a hassle. It's like the assistance he receives for saving his sister is payment up front for undertaking this divine mission.
Honoria, one of Megildur's two traveling companions, is better. Her personality is more consistent across the story. Her humility is played up and tied into her job and passion as a bard which adds meat to her character. She has a realistic sense of betrayal following an incident with a friend of hers and an equally realistic making up afterward. However, her backstory is clumsily delivered.
Gaal is a solidly written thief-rogue type. He is sneaky, crass, greedy etc. but he also has redeeming features such as Honor Among Thieves and loyalty via I Owe You My Life. It's nothing original but it is well done and harkens to the traditions of medieval fantasy style RPGs, upon which this book is based.
Aranel is cute. I would have liked to see more of her.
I can't really say there's a villain here. There are a number of enemies but all of them are sparsely developed and quickly dealt with so they don't count. They range from hostile guilds to political rivals to monsters.
"Amateurish" is how I would describe the prose. I do not mean this in the sense of spelling or grammar errors because I saw few, if any, of those. I mean it in the style. The narration states the obvious. The sentence construction and paragraphs lack punch. It is like it is trying to be epic and exciting and failing (thinking it is more epic than it is).
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Shadowbane: Age of Aelfborn" a C
This has been a free review request. The author requested an honest review so I provided one.
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Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).