An independent novel review
Bruce A. Blake is a professional fantasy writer after my own heart. I have already reviewed his first novel, On Unfaithful Wings, giving it a full five stars.
Khirro’s Journey, Book One: Blood of the King is the first book in the traditional fantasy trilogy, and this one is not only an outstanding novel in its own right, it does a great job of creating an audience for the following books.
By doing things right , Blake proves he’s earned his chops as a writer.
First, there’s the hero, Khirro. He’s not a prince, not a warrior, has no magical powers or special training, other than in agriculture. A lifelong, hands-on training program in agriculture. He’s a farmer, and at the book’s action-packed opening, he’s far worse than uncomfortable in armour and a sword is heavy and useless in his hands.
That’s one point for Blake: the flawed, weak and identifiable hero.
Next, he wastes no time in back-story or world-building. He gets right into the action — following Elmore Leonard’s rule, presumably, about “leaving out the parts readers tend to skip.” The book opens with Khirro, in uncomfortable armour, being knocked from a castle wall by undead warriors. Another body crashes onto a stone stairway landing on top of him. It turns out to be King Braymon. In his dying breaths, he begs Khirro to take him to the Shaman. To do this, Khirro has to carry the mortally wounded king on his back and run from a zombie warrior.
A skilled writer, Blake exposes the characters gradually, through their actions. He keeps the pace moving quickly forward, compelling the reader to keep turning pages (or swiping the e-reader screen, more likely).
Blake does not glamourize the medieval fantasy world, either. It’s hard, it’s awful. Kings are cruel, lives are short and brutal.
And everything is believable, even the magic spells, the zombie warriors and the monsters.
Khirro is a true everyman, and someone we can all relate to. He is the most common kind of man in medieval times (while the setting is an imaginary world where magic works and the undead walk and fight, like most epic fantasy, it’s parallel to our own world’s European middle ages in economics and technology): a farmer. Blake gradually exposes details about Khirro’s back-story only as the plot demands it. While at the outset, it’s clear that Khirro is an unwilling soldier and would much prefer being a farmer than a soldier, as the story progresses we learn that Khirro’s life on the farm was not idyllic, either. Khirro remains fully believable through all his back-story and his own redefinition as he is forced to face challenge after challenge.
Other characters are well-drawn, if a little stock: the royal guard, the terrifying, unstoppable one-eyed assassin, the Shaman. But others really leap off the page as three-dimensional: Maes and Athryn, the magician brothers; and Elyea, the harlot, especially. (How Blake is able to create such believable, sympathetic whores is something his wife may wonder about.)
Even the dead king gets a thorough character development, and turns out to be a mostly likable, if flawed man. There are very good reasons he should be restored to the throne.
The story is a good, old-fashioned quest. One of the oldest stories, yes, but it has lasted for good reason. Khirro is the only man left with the knowledge of the way to the Necromancer, a fearsome wizard who lives in a haunted land, so he can bring a vial of the dead king’s blood in order to resurrect the monarch. Again, Blake brings out the importance of this gradually, as the story demands the details. Along the way, the good guys face greater and greater challenges, and the bad guys show their resourcefulness and intelligence, too.
Blake doesn’t shy away from the queasy plot point on the morality and sheer advisability of restoring a dead man to life. What would it mean for everyone if the king were brought back from the dead? And what would the king and the kingdom owe the Necromancer for doing that?
But it’s not all dark. Humour is an important part of Blake’s writing, and there are passages that made me smile in this book.
Overall, Blake delivers a polished novel here. It stands on its own and tells a great adventure story filled with horror, suspense, mystery, romance and humour. It also leads well into the second and third books of the series. You’ll be hard put not to buy them as soon as you finish Blood of the King.