An Heir to Thorn and Steel (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

Fantasy, especially High Fantasy of the variety popularized by J. R. R Tolkein, has lately fallen into a malaise; the clichés and platitudes, predictable plucky farmboy protagonists, walking cardboard cutouts… and the plots… suffice it to say that fantasy lately has been plagued by a spell which attempts to do the impossible, i.e., bring Tolkein back from the dead, or at least his spirit. In the Indie scene this is all the more prevalent. One only need to briefly browse through the Amazon’s E-book marketplace to see what sort of cancer this impossibility has wrought; I will save you the trouble—scores of poorly written, unedited, textual shambles which deserve no role in the civilized literary world. So this is to say that whenever I delve into a new Indie fantasy novel, I am, in a word, suspect. So diving into M.C.A Hogarth’s An Heir to Thorns and Steel, I did not know what to expect. Would I enjoy discovering a new gem, or chide myself at slogging through yet another messy manuscript filled with half-baked ideas?

AS it turns out, I was able to pat myself on the back; not only was Hogarth’s yarn concerning a crippled graduate student’s struggle to find his origins between two powerful races while battling his own frailty, a beautifully realized tale in a skillfully written Victorian-esque setting, the book re-affirmed my faith in Indie authors to pen tales capable of challenging those published in the mainstream. Before I go any further, however, let me sketch the plot.

Morgan, the protagonist, is a graduate student studying at a prestigious university in a (American) Colonial era inspired country which, following their revolution to overthrow the monarchy, has become a republic; finding peace among his many books and classes, Morgan pines for the simple life of pain-free living, for you see, he has a debilitating illness which renders him useless and inflicts great harm on his body. One day, two furry creatures (‘genets’) named Almond and Kelu, emissaries from a far-away land, inform him that he is actually a prince, heir to an Elven kingdom. Though, of course, hesitant to believe them, Morgan reluctantly agrees to travel to this foreign land, lured by the promise of a cure to his illness; along the way he meets characters whom challenge him in more ways than one and toward a destiny which is something he never before imagined.

So… the plot appears very straightforward. Indeed, it even seems clichéd—this is the point, as the author, in what could be described in a literary incarnation of de-familiarization, makes it a habit of subverting every convention in the genre: the Elves are hardly the fair maidens of legend, but rather vicious feudal masters locked in never ending war with their neighbor; immortal creatures who can never die, Elves become in Hogarth’s world, vampiric creatures which demand blood in order to maintain their immortality. Masters of the “Genets,” the furry creatures who traveled to find Morgan, Elves are complicit in this world’s equivalency of the fur-and-slave trade; engineering the creatures to serve them until their death a few short years later, Genets are a metaphor for both animal slavery as well as chattel slavery. Here, Elves are hardly cute and far from friendly. Hence why Morgan adapts so poorly to being told he is their prince.

Although but only one example, it is a poignant slice of the text and illustrates how the author utilizes familiar tropes to unfamiliar ends. Because of this, and the nature of the land, a Victorian inspired continent where humanity has forgotten that Elves even exist, I have taken to calling Hogarth’s text a Realist Fantasy. Far from the power-fantasies which define most genres of Fantasy, of those adolescent marketed texts where a hero goes from ‘zero to hero’ in but half the book and then meets out violent fantasy fulfillment meant to stroke a young male’s mind, Hogarth’s text is mature: the story features heavy amounts of ambiguity. Nothing ever becomes ‘cute’ but neither do things become dark for no other reason than the author needing to kill off a beloved character (*cough* George R.R. Martin *cough*). As one read the text, what comes to mind is a continuous deconstruction of expectations; characters interact only to see assumptions melt before one’s eyes. There is no quick and easy path; power is repeatedly denied to the protagonist and so he must rely on either the merciful machinations of dues ex machina, or his own wits. The magick and fantastical elements are only just visible on the periphery of the drama and struggle to stay alive. Hogarth’s narrative has more in common with a contemporary cross-cultural migrant then with the farm boy protagonist which she takes aim against. This, I feel, is a virtue.

I am proud to report that Hogarth knows her stuff. World building, character development, and pacing are all handled spectacularly, without conveniences being made for absurd narrative and plot based cliches. Many authors, especially of the self-published variety which I have taken to reviewing, fall flat in at least one, if not all, of these areas, so it is refreshing to see one such Indie writer who can not only hold her own while displaying those things which seem to be in demand these days (*cough* proper grammar and punctuation *cough*), but can do so while etching out a place among the heavy-weight contenders of the fantasy genre; should she continue down this path of quality writing and world building, I feel she has the ability to become one of the next big names.

This is not to say, however, that her text is completely devoid of missteps, because there is a few, but luckily they are not very large. Without splitting hairs on some of the unnerving sexual morality which the text connotes, what I most took offense to was the protagonist’s never-ending bouts of sickness, more specifically, how Hogarth felt the need to narrate each one to the point of ad nausem; the main character is sick for the entirety of the book. Even more, she narrates each episode and is sure to detail each and every physical offense. I began to roll my eyes each time one such moment arrived. I strongly feel that at least a quarter of these descriptions could have been either removed completely, or merely described in passing, while another quarter could have been toned down to offer less detail; the point of Morgan’s illness, after all, was to convey his sort of suffering while traveling. Hogarth succeeded in conveying this struggle but at the expense of maintaining readership sympathy.

Even so what I found in Heir was a gem. An oddly grown up adventure story mixed in with some political philosophy and mild steampunk-fantasy aesthetics. Sure, it has its weaknesses, but so did Tolkein. Though I cannot speak for the content of the following books, I feel I will enjoy reading what happens to our multi-layered protagonist. Fans of alternative fantasy will be sure to want to pick up their copy soon.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel (Blood and Ladders trilogy book one)

M.C.A Hogarth

352 pages. Published by Studio MCAH. $2.99 (Kindle)[1]. 2015.

 

[1] Page estimates and prices provided by Amazon.com; price(s) were accurate at the time of writing.

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