The Dread Hammer is a love story. There, I said it. It is not a fairy tale with a happy ending, though it is very much a fairy tale in the love’s origin. In fact the start of the love story is laughably simple, but that does not matter. Because I didn’t say The Dread Hammer is about two people falling in love, but rather a story about two people that already in love.
A young woman runs and prays. Forced marriage may be the way of the land but Ketty isn’t the type to go along meekly. Praying for a some help she instead gets Smoke. Smoke is Bidden, youngest of a family that protects the Puzzle Lands with supernatural ability. He is also hiding from the rest of his family and not likely to leave witnesses. Asked to spare Ketty’s pursuers he instantly finds himself unable to disobey; once pursuit dies down the two move into Smoke’s hidden home for happily ever after. Like I said, laughable simple. But it is what comes next that matters.
The Puzzle Lands are locked in an endless war with a legend. A much larger kingdom is a constant threat but with the Bidden’s protection the Puzzle lands are locked away from invasion; hidden strings pulled by the Bidden can change the very landscape itself. Smoke’s twin sisters have dreams of peace and are thinking of acting as kingmaker, putting their own man on the neighboring kingdoms throne. Smoke’s father seems content with war, but would prefer to take the fight back on the offensive more. All three of his family members need Smoke to come out of hiding for their plans to work.
This book is written with a very sparse style, yet has surprising depth. Much of the backstory is provided with the thoughts of an otherwise silent sister; here the language is almost poetic to start each chapter. After this flowing intro the chapters are quick and efficient plot movers. This isn’t a story that will catalogue each tree in a journey and avoids all extra bloat. This style gives a whole lot of twists and turns in a relatively short page count. Personally I found it refreshing for fantasy.
Of course Smoke is eventually found and it is from that point this story really shines. The love story is given trials to overcome; some of which it will and some of which it won’t. The Bidden are leaders of the army but not the land itself, and interesting concept that allows for new dynamics. Smoke’s father is loyal to the land and his eldest daughters, but sees Smoke as a tool to be used and no more. His treatment of Smoke and Ketty is ruthless; worse he holds secrets that open up a whole new section in this twisting story. The sisters hold more love for Smoke but their loyalty to the Puzzle Lands leave them just as willing to use his talents.
Smoke is the core of the story, a wonderful flawed character. His love for Ketty is pure but it may be the only thing about him that is. A perfect killer with atrocities tied to him, he is feared by all. Alone among the Bidden he is unloved by the people, and shows them no love in return. If not for Ketty he may not have any cares in the world, yet hears the prayers of many in trouble and often answers them. Intriguing and hard to pin down is our Smoke, but a whole lot of fun to read about.
So much to like about this story. Ketty gets to change from a pawn in a board game to someone who finds her own power through education and willpower rather than luck. The strength of the tiny puzzle lands vs the cult led kingdom they are fighting (and their mysterious, possible immortal leader). Several smaller flawed love stories built around the main one, including a few surprises. And a bittersweet ending with heart.
It is the amount of heart this book has that really sells it for me. It is a book that falls into the gritty fantasy label for sure, but with a certain amount of sweetness. I will be reading the second of the duo in the near future, and have no problems recommending this one.
Note: it appears it was originally published under the pen name Trey Shiels, but my copy said Linda Nagata