Nine heroes came together and defeated the dark lord of Necrad twenty-two years ago, losing one of their own in the process, and now have been doing their best without him trying to lead the city to mixed results. On the surface, The Sword Defiant is a story of one warrior realizing the good old times are old times for a reason, while a mother overcomes the traumatic events of her past to save her son and discover the broader world at large. Underneath the surface is a tale of what happens when the war is won, and your comrades have grown older and changed, changed in a way that you may no longer trust them or approve of how they view the world.
After two years away, Aelfric the Lammergeir returns to the city of Necrad after being given a prophecy of dark tidings, but one of the other Nine Heroes, Jan, only to find things aren’t not going all that well. Gareth Hanrahan plays with trust throughout the story, especially with the remaining eight heroes. Early on, it’s revealed the grave containing the remains of their friend and the dark lord who were entangled together in death can only be opened by one of the eight, and Aelfric soon discovers it not only opened but the remains missing. It serves as a great hook as we meet the remaining nine, all steeped in morally grey areas that ask who Aelfric can trust.
Alf trusts too quickly, especially regarding the Nine, but the demon sword, Spellbreaker, does not, which made me wonder if the sword may have a point. Whether it was doing so for its purposes or not, the advice it gave Aelfric was quite reasonable for an evil sword. Except for the encouragement of killing of innocence, of course, it’s a sword; what does it know of good and evil? It’s made for killing. The relationship between sword and wielder was a standout part of the book, with them both needing something from one another while the other isn’t willing to give it up so easily.
Setting the book twenty-two years after the defeat of Lord Bones gives the author the tools to write Aelfric with a unique perspective. Fantasy often favors younger people for the chosen heroes, usually at a period when searching for the purpose of their life doesn’t weigh on their minds. The author writes Aelfric’s age from his point-of-view so well. You can feel it in how he swings his sword with either reluctance or indifference, like a man clocking into the same job he’s had for twenty-two years. He has only known the quest for so long, so when Jan, one of the Nine, tells him of a prophetic darkness coming, Alf latches on to it. The rest of the Nine have meaning to their lives, responsibilities, and a purpose, whether homeland, comrades, family, wealth, or power. Aelfric has none of those, and this weighs heavily on him at his age. He was the farm boy who became a hero, finished the quest, and became a knight with glory and treasure. Now, all that is in the past, and he doesn’t know what to do with his life. Until the events of The Sword Defiant go wrong, Aelfric needs the quest more than the quest needs doing. That inner turmoil makes for a great read.
While Aelfric is lost for a purpose without the quest, his sister Olva, is unlucky enough to have the quest thrust upon her. When her son Derwyn goes chasing after the long shadow of his legendary uncle in the far-off city of Necrad, Olva is forced to head on her own adventure to retrieve him. Side by side with Aelfric’s point-of-view chapters, Olva has a much more traditional fantasy quest; the farmer from a small village leaves on a quest to save their loved one, gaining allies along the way and learning of a wider world. In this regard, Olva is the hero, and Derwyn is the damsel-in-distress. As opposed to Aelfric’s tired indifference, Olva’s point-of-view gives us a mother determined at all costs to save her son. Through her, we see the world of The Sword Defiant and the city of Necrad in a much less cynical light, even though Olva has lived through her own traumatic events.
If you’ve read Hanrahan’s The Black Iron Legacy series, you know the author writes cities so well and alive, like that old cliche of the city is a character in itself. Each section of the city takes on a life of its own, from the sectors that house the refugee Witch Elves to The Wailing Tower, where the wizard Blaise studies the spells of the former dark lord. Necrad means so many different things to the many people either living there or having an active investment in what goes on there, and none of them gel quite well with one another ideally. What will happen to Necrad is the story Gareth is telling under the surface of what’s become of the Nine. It’s as if the author is playing a sleight of hand trick on his reader, showing a card displaying Aelfric trying to bring the remaining Nine Heroes together against whatever darkness Jan has prophesied while slipping into your pocket a card showing what’s happening in Necrad to delight much.
Creating a world of sword and sorcery with humans, elves, and dwarves, with wizards, rogues, barbarians, monsters, and magic swords in 2023, is difficult, especially to do so without treading the same ground. Approaching The Sword Defiant after the dark lord has been defeated. The heroes have had twenty years to figure out what happens next makes it feel like you’re picking up the sword and sorcery book of your youth when you’ve become an adult with more mature problems and consequences of a fantasy world without having to shed what was fun about that kind of books when you were younger.
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Joshua was provided an advance copy of the book by Orbit books.
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