Smile Politely

En medias res

Darkness falls. A horde of barbaric orcs threaten to overrun civilization. A valiant host of humanity must stand outnumbered against the forces of evil.

How many epic fantasies tell such a tale? The tale of evil northern barbarians — usually mirror-images of Tolkien’s orcs — attacking western society only to be repelled by the heroic deeds of civilized mankind. As a lifetime fantasy nerd, I cannot count the number of carbon copy Tolkien novels I’ve read. Or rather started to read until boredom set in. As the father of modern fantasy, Tolkien paved the wonderful paths of epic fantasy, or high fantasy, and authors in droves have followed that road even when it meant running clean off a cliff.

In the second installment of his Dragonoul Saga, A Darkness Unleashed, author J.T. Hartke (a native of Dieterich, IL) walks this fantastic path whilst adeptly avoiding the pitfalls. Yes, I said whilst; this is a fantasy book review after all. 

But before diving into the Hartke’s impressive sequel, a digression. A confession, if you will. I have never started a series on the second book, or at any point other than the beginning…until now. I had every intention of reading the first Dragonsoul book, A Balance Is Broken. Hell, I even bought the ebook. But then, just when I started to read, I stopped myself. Reading the first book of any series gets you acquainted with the characters, and familiarity breeds comfort. It’s why successful sitcoms will often have nearly 10 seasons. Even when the jokes are recycled and unbearably self-referential, we continue to watch because the characters are familiar and comfortable. The same goes for book series. With that in mind, I wanted to review A Darkness Unleashed unburdened by an established emotional connection to the series.

That being said, for the first few chapters of the new book I was sorely tempted to reverse my decision. The book wastes little time before diving into the action. The first chapter starts with Tallen Westar, a Dreamer and wizard-in-training. He and his fellowship are in Daynon looking for his love, Maddi — where I assumed the last book left off. What ensues is a presumably long-awaited reunion for the star-crossed lovers and a comical yet intense battle between Tallen and an overbearing secretary. On the other side of Tarmor, a character named Jaerd (Tallen’s brother) flees the fallen fortress of Highspur with a handful of comrades to warn the world of the orc horde led by Warchief Slar. The mentions of Highspur had me itching to go back to the first book for even a glimpse of the battle that occurred there; I resisted…but only just barely.

The rest of the book mostly revolves around the convergence of the forces of civilized men and the barbarian orc horde. Hartke, like many of his contemporaries, tells the story through multiple perspectives, predominately those of Tallen, Jaerd, Slar, and Maddi. Of those four, only Slar is nonhuman; but even so, Hartke makes sure no race is left without a voice. A number of other players get the odd chapter, but their storylines are left at loose ends to be tied up in the next book. This is for the best, as the main plot needs no diversions.

One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting was Hartke’s depiction of the races. Typically, dwarves are characterized as greedy and stubborn while elves are noble and fair and orcs are cruel and savage. It’s usually only the humans who have any “range,” and even that usually turns into an elf/orc dichotomy of honorable or wicked. Hartke gives us a different picture by showing some similarities between the human and orc factions. Each side has dissenters seeking to undermine the leader of their group, fanatics serving an exclusory religion, and others who care more for glory than the lives of those who serve them. On the other hand, each side also has individuals who are honorable, dutiful, and brave.

Hartke’s characterization of the races is a clear divergence from the “classic epic fantasy” genre, as Hartke called it in an article about the previous book (found here). Likewise, many of the big names of our day — like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Steven Erikson — subvert the tropes of epic fantasy by making their characters, whether they be protagonist or antagonist, morally ambiguous. Hartke defies this new trope as well. His protagonists have clear moral imperatives that drive them, yet, unlike old-school fantasy heroes, they doubt whether their war against the orcs is just. The antagonist, Slar, can be seen as even more ambiguous. He will endorse torture and brutality, but he clearly cares for his people and has a sense of duty. I’ve always had a soft spot for sympathetic villains and so found myself rooting for Slar when the inevitable showdown was in full swing. After all, unlike our main protagonists, he is the equivalent of a king and bears the terrible responsibility of leading his entire race.

Speaking of the final showdown: the battle between the orc horde and the human army puts the epic in epic fantasy. Hartke’s uncanny ability to paint the battle as both heroic and futile is a rare gift. But epic fantasy isn’t just about the fight between good and evil. What makes it one of the best fantasy subgenres is how it merges many other subgenres into one. This is a fact that Hartke uses to deadly effect. A Darkness Unleashed has a taste of military fantasy, romantic fantasy, and sword & sorcery mixed together without any one aspect overpowering the other. The novel has a few twists including one at the end that caught me like a deer in the headlights, thinking, “Hartke you brilliant bastard!” Let’s just say the theme of balance plays a big role.

All in all, it was a pleasure to read an epic fantasy that follows the signposts of the classics without being driven into disaster by them. Hartke has created an intricate and, better yet, interesting world. This sequel gives you a delicious taste of what the fantasy genre has to offer and leaves your mouth watering for more. In short, if you read the first book, this is a must-read; if not, it’s still a should-read.

A Darkness Unleashed, Book Two of the Dragonsoul series, is available to purchase here. For information on Hartke’s series, check out the Dragonsoul Saga website.

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