“It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.” -Private Yimt Arkhorn, “A Darkness Forged in Fire”
Private Arkhorn’s statement perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Chris Evans’s new novel “A Darkness Forged in Fire”. The book is essentially the fantasy novel equivalent of talking about the weather, functional discourse, but not very entertaining in the end. (I apologize if you are one of the rare folk who find talking about the weather deeply fulfilling. By the way, do you know if it’s going to rain tomorrow?) Functional stories are less entertaining; it’s like déjà vu with different characters. To his credit, Evans spices things up a bit with humor, and he shows a skill for writing entertaining characters, but when you look at the story as a whole it’s 400 pages of “wandering through the forest”. This fantasy cliché wouldn’t be complete without a battle at the end, and Evans doesn’t disappoint, giving us a huge battle featuring multiple factions at the conclusion. If literature has the “coming of age” storyline, then the fantasy genre clearly has the “coming to battle” story arc.
Though ultimately cliché, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is at least a well done rendition of the overused material. Evans displays creativity with his characters and setting and exhibits fine storytelling chops, it just makes you wonder what he could have done with a better underlying storyline. The novel also seems to struggle in deciding if it wants to be a standard mainstream fantasy or more of a dark fantasy. The more adult, hard-edged aspects are teased, but never wholly embraced. “A Darkness Forged in Fire” would have been helped tremendously if Evans had written it with the same gritty no-nonsense approach Joe Abercrombie used for his First Law trilogy. The material here begs for that type of treatment.
Konowa Swift Dragon, an elf, has been living as an outcast for the last year in a forest in Elfkyna. Exiled for murdering the previous Viceroy of Elkyna who was operating under the power of the evil elf-witch, the Shadow Monarch, Konowa had previously been the commander of the Iron Elves, an elite unit of the Calahrian Imperial Army before his court martial. Setting the scene further, the human Calahrian Empire rules over the land of Elfkyna, and its native race, the elfkynan, who are beginning to rebel against their human oppressors.
Konowa and his companion, Jir, a bengar, soon stumble across a group of rakkes in the forest. Rakkes are evil creatures long thought to be extinct, but their reappearance suggests the growing power of the Shadow Monarch in the world. Overcoming the rakkes, Konowa and Jir discover a woman who had been captured by the creatures, Visyna. Surprisingly, Visyna had come into the forest looking for Konowa to deliver a message: he is to resume his commission in the Calahrian army immediately.
When Konowa had been court-martialed and exiled, the Iron Elves had been disbanded, the remaining members sent out to remotest parts of the world. The Iron Elves had been an all-elf unit, comprised of elves ostracized in their homeland where the other elves believed that their black tipped ears was a mark left on them by the Shadow Monarch. The newly reconstituted Iron Elves, now lead by the incompetent and puffed-up Prince of Calahr (sarcasm alert: now that’s a fantasy novelty), is mostly made up of the dregs of the Calahrian army. And the unit is no longer an all elf affair.
The Iron Elves are soon sent on a journey to a small outpost, Luuguth Jor, to secure a powerful magical artifact: the Eastern Star. A rebel army of elfkynan are also interested in the power of the Star (and how it can help them throw off their Calahrian oppressors), and are similarly marching on Luuguth Jor. On top of this, the Shadow Monarch has evil plans for using the Star. The Iron Elves must battle the foul, evil creatures of the Shadow Monarch along the way, finally confronting both the rebel army and the forces of the Shadow Monarch at Luuguth Jor in order to win the Eastern Star.
The strength of “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is in the characters as most of them are well-realized and humorously entertaining. It’s these fun characters that keep this “coming to battle” tale from sinking into absolute mediocrity. There still is too much cliché in the character types, but it comes off as being more harmless than outright offensive. The pacing of the novel is suitable; I never got to the point I felt I was slogging through it since events flow by relatively quickly.
Though well-written, the action sequences are also pedestrian, revolving around the soldiers battling some new type of evil monster that should be extinct. (And the Iron Elves work happily at leading many of them back into the realm of extinction.) Forget ground-breaking though, there isn’t anything here that even wobbles the earth. So if you are looking for something fresh and original, you’ll want to look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for a light and moderately entertaining “coming to battle” read, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” should do the trick.
“A Darkness Forged in Fire” is the little black dress of fantasy novels, a necessary staple that does a serviceable job, but is not spectacular or remarkable in any way. Evans’s writing talent alone raises the novel to slightly above average, which is a shame since it would have been intriguing to see what he would do with better material. Overall, “A Darkness Forged in Fire” is a serviceable, but unremarkable, read.
By Paul Stotts
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