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Fantasy Review: ‘The Tattered Banner’ by Duncan M Hamilton

Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. The early chapters are the usual street-boy-goes-to-posh-school affair, but fortunately Soren has the intelligence to keep his nose clean, so he’s not constantly getting into trouble. He also turns out to be something of a fighting phenomenon, not an unusual theme in fantasy, but nicely intriguing here. Is his ability a natural talent, or some kind of magic?

Fortunately, the author avoids getting too entrenched in schoolroom dramas and Soren is soon out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek). The romantic entanglement is slightly more clunky, but that fits with Soren’s rather self-effacing nature. The background scenery is lightly sketched, with more emphasis on architecture than geography, but it works fine, and the deep history – of empires and mage wars and other intriguing events – is no more than hints. I found it interesting that Ostia (Soren’s country) has outlawed magic, but still makes use of mage lights, while the barbarians still practice magic.

Soren is a likeable protagonist, making (mostly) sensible decisions. I liked his response to a trick played on him by a fellow student. His friends tell him his honour has been impugned and he must challenge the trickster to a duel, but Soren is reluctant; he is far more concerned with trying not to break the rules of the Academy and thereby get himself thrown out. Unlike his rich, titled friends, he is more focused on making a career for himself than on abstract concepts like honour, and he never forgets his origins. He seems to adapt surprisingly well to a life of protocol and diplomacy, but he’s clearly a smart cookie, so I can go along with that (and frankly, a socially inept character would be pretty tedious – I wanted Soren to succeed, not trip over his own feet). It has to be said, though, that he’s very gullible – although to be fair, it fits with his personality and previous life, since he’s too grateful for his reprieve from the streets to question things, and he has no understanding of political nuances.

The writing style is enjoyably literate, if rather wordy, but it works very well for a story like this, built around formality and protocol. The author has a habit of dumping information occasionally, but it’s small scale stuff and not obtrusive. There is some untidiness, repetition and excessive exposition, and the author might care to look up the difference between ‘discrete’ and ‘discreet’. The latter part of the book becomes a little episodic and the fights rather perfunctory, but Soren’s investigations into his abilities were still intriguing. The big reveal at the end is hardly a surprise, and the ending somewhat glib, but these are minor issues.

I really enjoyed this book and found it seductively easy to keep turning the pages – that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s the first time I’ve read a story focused on the rapier as the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. I would have liked to know more about Soren’s abilities and the mage wars, but perhaps that will come in a later book. This is a somewhat flawed effort in many ways – the choppy ending, the not-quite-convincing romance and the sometimes too wordy style – but I found it a great read. A good four stars. And the belek was awesome.

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