Game of Thrones meets Jack Reacher – The Vathiriel Blade is in the top rank of indie published fantasy novels.
The collapse of a regime can be a brutal affair. It’s something we’ve seen too many times in the the last decade, as dictatorships across the Middle East have fallen…and sometimes risen again. It’s imagery of the execution of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadaffi that author Mark Brantingham summons in the opening set piece of The Vathiriel Blade, a new indie published fantasy novel that sets a high bar for the field.
King Dwyer fought his way to power, but now his fortress is surrounded by the armies of a new challenger, and defeat is certain. Beside the king is his loyal captain, Sean Fitzpatrick. The early scenes of The Vathiriel Blade lay the ground for a prototypical epic fantasy adventure of kings battling for power. Instead the reader is blindsided as Dwyer is quickly defeated, his forces butchered, civilians murdered, and the full brutality of regime change unfolds.
Captain Sean Fitzpatrick, pardoned by the challenger king, is one of the few survivors. After witnessing the death of his wife and child in the aftermath of battle, Sean has little reason to embrace his existence. But the kindness shown to him by a simple farming family opens Sean to the potential of a different kid of life, one dominated not by violence and hatred, but by peace and love. Perhaps even a life in the small town of Skoagy where he washes up after the war. But as readers we know, powerful forces will step in to stop Sean finding that happiness.
If the early set-up echoes Game of Thrones, the real story of The Vathiriel Blade is a fantasy themed “stranger comes to town” narrative in the style of Jack Reacher, the drifter hero created by Lee Child. The town of Skoagy is a fantasy take on exactly the kind of one horse town the stranger commonly washes up in, which in turn places Brantingham’s tale firmly in the emerging Weird Western genre. The towns villain’s, up to their armpits in a land grab of local farms, take some inspiration from Al Swearengen and crew in the classic Deadwood.
All of this makes for a highly appealing genre mash-up. Brantingham winds the tension up in a long, quiet build of subtle character work before Sean Fitzpatrick is forced to face both Skoagy’s dark side, and his own violent past. The return of Solomon, the town’s enforcer, from the same war that claimed Sean’s old life, produces a violent conflict that resonates far more deeply than the petty murder which ignites it.
The Vathiriel Blade’s ambition is remarkable. At times Brantingham doesn’t quite carry off the narrative tricks he tries to pull on the reader. The novel’s opening set piece of King Dwyer’s fall is over-long and there isn’t a strong enough set-up to pull readers through to the main body of the story. Sean Fitzpatrick, as the story’s protagonist, is too often overshadowed by shifts of point-of-view to other characters, especially in the narrative’s first act where the decision to treat him as a “hidden protagonist” undermines much of the story’s potential appeal. Brantingham’s character work is a little too subtle for the genre material he is playing with, and the middle of the book sags a little without an immediate focus of action.
These criticism’s fade away when Brantingham unleashes the narrative dynamics that bring The Vathiriel Blade to it’s satisfying climax. Genre collisions are technically tricky to pull off, but despite some teething problems, there’s more than enough in Brantingham’s “stranger comes to town” fantasy to make it a compelling read. There’s clearly a potential series in The Vathiriel Blade, and with a strong high concept and good delivery, it’s one many readers will find pleasure in.