Although I read this for Fantasy Book Review's contribution to The Self Published Fantasy Blog Off it was a book that had been on my horizon for some time so I was thrilled when it was placed in our group. I am happy to announce that Behind the Vale was my first semi-finalist from this year's competition.
What is it with awesome bad-ass characters being called Drake recently? We had a Drake in Rob J. Hayes' - Where Loyalties Lie and Peter McLean's - Drake. Drake, the protagonist here is a 'hawker' who is a sort of bounty hunter who lives and takes assignments in the greyest, dirtiest, and most violent places in the world after being exiled from the Troi's Royal Guard for a crime he didn't commit. He is an engrossing main character who has a P37 army specification gun and a magic sword. In similar fashion to how Geralt does in the Witcher novels, he has a very necessary set of skills to complete many complex and dangerous tasks that other individuals would not even contemplate considering. That has been his life for nine years. That is until he is arrested one day after defending himself from an assassination attempt. He is taken to the local police station only to see his old comrade who is now head of the Royal Guard awaiting him and he has a request. The Prince of Troi, who was once Drake's best friend has been kidnapped. The Royal Guard has thus far had no success in tracking the heir and they need Drake's honed skills, intelligence and knowledge of these unsavoury areas to lead the rescue efforts.
The standard for top-tier Self-Published books is phenomenal. Behind the Vale fits into that category with ease. To the extent that Anderson's story is so well crafted, engaging, and original that TOR have signed him to release a trilogy for them in 2020. That's the future so let's discuss what we have here.
The action is presented in a near-futuristic world where most of the wealth resides within the main city Troi. Outside the city are very desolate and grim towns and settlements where times are truly hard and greenery and anything beneficial for survival just do not grow. The city has a stranglehold monopoly on these inhabitants whose lives aren't exactly rosy unless you are highly skilled in a certain field. Even further from the capital is an area that is unknown and is guarded by a magical structure known as the Vale. Presented as being similar to The Misery in Ed McDonald's Blackwing, nobody dares venture beyond the Vale as that is where grotesque monstrosities lurk. All the action takes place under a shimmering sky flowing with mana and magical capabilities that looks sort of like a spider's web through a kaleidoscope. Imagine looking at the sun with your eyes closed and seeing dots spinning and moving and dancing on the back of your eyelids and that is how I imagine the skyline is viewed here.
Some of the elements featured in Behind the Vale are very reminiscent of recent Final Fantasy or Star Ocean games such as monster battles, phenomenal magical capabilities, signature weapons, and infiltrating secret facilities where notorious experiments are taking place. That isn't where the similarities to JRPG's end, however. The cast of characters could be right out of one of the aforementioned games. The roguish lead-guy with a brutal past but a heart of gold, a long-lost love interest who all believe is out of his league, an assassin accomplice that he doesn't know if he can trust or not, a former employer who might just have it in for the hero, and a mysterious young girl who happens to be an expert hacker. The whole ensemble is neat, interesting, and their dialogue flows expertly. It is like reading a computer game but not in the sense of LitRPG as this is a really detailed and constructed fantasy world. A player isn't sucked from real life into it and we don't have endless levelling up, skill sheets or bonus enhancement choices like some LitRPG books do. There is nothing wrong with that genre but here the writing, action, and progression feel more organic and I, therefore, care more about the players and outcomes as I know this isn't a game and in this beautifully crafted world the consequences really do matter.
I won't discuss the narrative too much, however, this is the second time I've read it and both times I've read it within two days and haven't been able to put it down. There are moments of utmost excitement, shocks aplenty, betrayals from where you would least expect them and all the other excellent ingredients that make an excellent Final Fantasy-esque addictive and thoroughly enjoyable fantasy thriller. Remember the name. Anderson is going to be a big deal, so be one of the cool kids and read him before your friends do. Excellent work and very much still in the running to be Fantasy Book Review's SPFBO finalist.
James Tivendale - 8.5/10
Ex-Royal Guard, Drake Sharazi, has been slumming it in the provinces since his exile from Troi. Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s been doing what’s necessary to stay alive, bounty hunting and consorting with the kind of criminals he would have taken down in his former life. He has this whole down and out, noir style vibe: seen it all, done it all. Now he has the chance to make it back into his golden existence, but can he do it without trampling over his already strained morals, or other people, to get there?
With the shining city of Troi at its heart, The Vale provides a beacon of hope and good living in a dying world. Or that’s what the marketing department would say anyway. Living under streams of mana which flow from a power station maintained by the Order of High Mages, the people of Troi have it all. At least in comparison to those living outside its boundaries. Within the city a hierarchical structure holds sway, each person allowed specific privileges according to their background, the whole system designed to support the rich and especially the royals. While most people are too scared of losing whatever position they have, the unfairness of it all has birthed Exodus, an underground organisation behind every major act against the regime, their ostensible aim to take over the Vale. And now they’ve kidnapped the prince, Drake’s old friend and the person he now has to find. Except the conspiracy goes much deeper than he expected, the effort far more trying than the job description implied. With a supporting cast of misfits, he searches for answers, finding more than he bargained for about his own past to boot.
This is a place where magic and tech mix, all the mod cons enhanced by some specialist kit, like Drake’s P37 gun and his modified car. Oh yes, it’s a bit of a blokey read. In fact, it’s a fun and trope-filled romp through a UF style apocalyptic background, with high action set pieces, intrigue, and a little romance. It’s a pretty simple tale, prioritising action and adventure over depth, keeping it pacey as hell. Even so, there’s some attempt at meaty themes. The basic idea of pitting the haves against the have-nots is amplified by dwindling resources and twisted ideas about how to ensure the survival of not just the fittest, but the ‘best of the best’. While it's a comprehensive world, painted in vivid colours and more than big enough to hold the plot, it never quite reaches that point of gritty veracity. It’s a stage for the story and the reality it holds comes more from the way it reflects things we’ve seen before, on page and screen, than anything internal to the text. Drake’s moral journey is by far the most interesting, if not entirely novel, aspect of the book, the hopelessness and bitterness at having to live his life away from civilisation slowly morphing into his own fight for what’s right. Regardless, he’s the kind of underdog hero with murder skills you can really get behind. No need to drag you along for this ride, you’re suited, booted, and ready to go. I’ll definitely see what comes next, this kind of easy fun shouldn’t be missed.
Read for SPFBO 2018
7.5/10 - Emma Davis
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