It’s not hard to find a fantasy novel to read, if you’re so inclined. The fantasy/sci-fi section of a Barnes and Nobles is now larger than the literary classics section. Ever since Tolkien introduced “Middle-earth,” enthusiasts for the genre have brought their interpretation of a world filled with monsters and medieval warriors to print in droves. And I liked that. Fantasy was my first love of reading. The first series I fell for was the six part Philip Jose Farmer’s The Dungeon when I was a young teenager. That led me Jordan, Salvatore, Pratchett, Brooks and just about every other fantasy author. It developed a fondness for reading in all genres, but now that I’m older I’m returning to fantasy less and less.
There are only so many worlds I can keep straight, so many drawn maps of fictional countries with names that contain too many vowels. Don’t get me started on the 37 character points of view I need to keep straight when reading volume one of a series called something like: “Dragon Wolf Crown of the Undead Emerald Warrior” of what promises to be a ten part series. It makes me tired just thinking about it. I’ve over done it, and I’ve gotten fantasy fatigue.
Luckily, certain new fantasy authors seem to be suffering from the same affliction. I can read Game of Thrones or Prince of Thorns because the authors seem less inclined to try and demonstrate their ability to create races, languages and continents to rival Tolkien, and instead focus on the characters and an original concept with a fantasy backdrop. So I’m more selective now. When I received Duskfall from Titan Books I had to wonder which category it would fall into. I had never heard of the author, Christopher Husberg, (which makes sense, this is his debut novel) so I had little to go on. Would I have to tread through pages of someone renaming trees “Yondufernots” simply because it was his world and he wanted you to know it, or would I be able to find the old excitement I used to have when I walked into a bookstore as a kid?
Duskfall (Titan Books)
With the large amount of work editors and agents play in shaping a final book, you can never really call it beginner’s luck when a novel makes it to print, but still, I found myself impressed with Husberg’s first outing. It’s a well thought out story with unique characters; there are monsters, magic and swordplay, but the author has gone to lengths to make sure the people that inhabit his book are the thrust of it, not the world itself. The pacing may be the greatest strength of Duskfall. It made a 500+ page book fly by, which is not easy.
The story focuses on three main points of view: Knot, an amnesiac, left for dead and fished out of the sea, who seems to have hidden powers; Winter, an elf girl, who is the daughter of the man who saved Knot, and wants to leave the small town and life she has; and Cinzia, a young devout priestess that returns home to deal with a group of heretics that turn out to be her own family.
I was wary of Knot’s story at first. He seemed to fit into the trope of “simple man who can do miraculous things” when he needs them. That’s kind of true, especially since he can’t remember who he is, but as deadly as he can be, the author doesn’t mind showing us him failing, even with his many talents; this kept up the suspense in a way many fantasy authors fail (by making their characters supremely powerful there’s simply no bite to the action, even faced with incredible odds).
I thought if one of the plot lines would eventually grow tiresome, it would be Cinzia, as she seemed too far removed from flow of the rest of the story. I often find myself wanting to skip these chapters in other novels, as they seem to be secondary characters bumped up to starring status for no other reason than exposition purposes. This wasn’t the case in Duskfall as her chapters were paced just as well as the others and she tied into the rest of the plot around the middle of the book. At first she seemed destined to play the authoritarian role, unconvinced of anything that went against her code, regardless of the contrarian events she experiences. However, Cinzia’s own personal doubt about her religion prove to be rather refreshing.
Finally Winter, whose own internal journey is as interesting as the plot itself. Victim and heroine at different points, she’s always sympathetic through her struggles with addiction and discovery of a new power. Like Knot, she’s allowed to fail which is, again, surprising since all signs seem to point to her being a narrative crutch used to get out of any dire situation once she learns she has magical like abilities. That’s certainly not the case and we see her fall as far as anyone in the book.
Another aspect I thoroughly enjoyed about Duskfall? There isn’t the black and white bold strokes to Husberg’s characters; drug addiction and the denial that goes with it has actual consequences. One character deals with the heavy regret of murder while also admitting the joy and rush they have while killing. It may not be as dark as Mark Lawerance’s “Jorg” character from the excellent Broken Empire trilogy, but it doesn’t hold on to the fantasy archetypes of noble warrior and benevolent princesses either. Husberg has allowed imperfect characters to take the lead, even if some of the situations are familiar and it makes quite a difference in the tone of the book.
Thematically, the subjects of finding oneself and victimization standout. Parts of Winter’s story have a “Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man” feel as she develops her latent abilities. This is especially potent because of the standing of her race and a near rape incident which at times make her feel weak. Seeing her relish the chance to become stronger and be confident of herself comes off as very relatable. However, Husberg makes it a point to have a cost to those powers and realizations that perhaps she is stronger without them, too. I was also surprised how he used the religious back drop to explore belief and what it can cost, in a fantasy setting. It shows up not just in Cinzia’s character, which seem obvious, but in a few of the antagonists as well. This inclusion also made Kali and Nash more interesting as they weren’t regulated to crouching in corners and smirking at their evil schemes, instead questioning their own actions even as they carried out the duties they thought were right.
The book’s not perfect. Like I said, the beginning certainly seemed to be hinting at the same tropes I’ve seen before and it took a few chapters of each character to realize I didn’t necessarily know where each plot point was going. Some of the secondary characters didn’t seem immediately necessary, like Cinzia’s sister Jane, but I’m willing to trust the author has a plan for them in later books to further develop their character. I liked the cliff hanger feel to how some of the chapters concluded, but certain factions and plot points introduced near the end didn’t seem to get the time they needed. That’s really nit-picking though, since this is going to be a series of four books, the events are certainly setting up further volumes.
In all, I liked Duskfall the more I read of it. It helps that there was an economy of words to each chapter (something most fantasy epics fail at), which provided quick doses of events and then moved on to the next one. The author did a good job of incorporating his world building into the narrative without falling back on lengthy exposition. The action was tight and by giving his character’s faults, the tension remained. As I grow older, I find it’s whether or not I like a book’s characters that have me picking up the second volume in a series, rather than just an excitement to see where the plot was headed and how it was resolved. I’m happy to say I’m eagerly awaiting the next volume in the Chaos Queen Quintet. If this was Christopher Husberg’s first effort, fantasy has a bright future indeed.