Blackhand by Matt Hiebert


I first read Matt Hiebert's work when he submitted an excellent short story to a competition we were running last year. So I did not hesitate at all when asked to read and review his latest novel, Blackhand, which tells the story of a banished prince who finds himself caught in a struggle between two warring gods; whose destiny leads to his being transformed into a being that is more than human with the strength of a god.

First I will put my thoughts on Blackhand into one concise sentence: I loved the first half of the book but did not care much for the second. I once watched a Quentin Tarantino film called From Dusk till Dawn and the experience was similar to reading Blackhand, not in regards to content but in the abrupt change of style/genre half way through. But I must stress that this is a purely personal opinion and others may experience things differently, so as always it is a great idea to make up your own mind.

The first half of the book has many positives, it feels like the classic fire-side storytelling of which fantasy authors like David Eddings were so adept. But there was also a very thoughtful and patient air that put me in mind of Ursula Le Guin, particularly in the relationship between Siyer and Quintel, and the talks they have, the topics they discuss. There is also a delightful variation on chess that is integral in Quintel's training and his ascension to God-like status. I liked the cast of characters, and the aged mentor/innocent youngster relationship is always a winner for me. The chapters were short and snappy and there was always a feeling of progress, as if every chapter played an important part in moving the story forward. There was a feeling of speculative fiction that complemented the fantasy theme well and I really liked it.

But then, shortly after Quintel ascends to a near-God like being there is a sudden change in style, in genre really. The thoughtful approach is swept aside as a hack-and-slash, full on battle mode ensued. The remainder of the book felt like one long battle scene, which was a shame as the thoughtful element was what I had bought into. Another real problem for me lay in Quintel becoming a near god - he became basically invincible and with that came a loss of tension as it was almost given that he would triumph in every battle. And the story played out with Quintel killing, and killing, and then killing again. It just didn't work for me.

But at the end the story once again slowed down and some neat sub-plots and a well thought-out fantasy creation theory helped to finish the book on a strongly. But unfortunately the pages upon pages of death and mayhem had left me more than a little desensitised. The book has two distinctly different parts - the first really worked for me, the second didn't. For other reader it may well be the other way around, or perhaps they will love both.

As you read the above it is obvious that I had issues with the book but when I think on the author's short story and on the quality of the first half of the book I would not hesitate to read from him in the future. There is definite talent there.

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