Many of us know too well that a well-known publisher and well-marketed book do not guarantee a well-written or worthwhile read (thus, in part, the reason for this blog!). Neither does self-publishing always deserve its reputation for sloppy, unpolished and amateurish writing. Unfortunately, there is often a kernel of truth inside stereotypes, and that kernel sprouts in (best-selling self-published fantasy author) David Dalglish’s Night of the Wolves.
In brief, it’s a tale of two paladins of different faith (and magicks) battling to save a forgotten town from the unexpected invasion of wolf-men, hungry for revenge and better hunting. The plot offers few surprises: after an initial attack, and a raid in response, there’s a build-up of forces on both sides, then a final and protracted battle with odds desperately against the humans.
Nor are there many twists in the expected stereotypes of the fantasy roles: the good paladin is noble and fights with shining white shield, the dark paladin with a black burning sword; the wolf-men (and bird-men and orcs) are just as you might think, intelligent but feral and out for blood; the townspeople are impotent and needing saving; and the world is divided into the Wedge for magical creatures and the good lands for humans. Dalglish’s idea of the magical religious paladins is fun, and his series of neglected fortresses protecting humanity against the onslaught of evil promising (though see the Wall in Game of Thrones, et cetera)… but for the most part we’re left untickled by upturned expectations or clever reworkings of expected tropes.
Night of the Wolves is not all bad: the dark paladin does struggle between his faith and his conscience, and the fight scenes are occasionally rousing. In fact, there is plenty of fighting and gore, and for those interested in a battle-packed story, Night of the Wolves is not such a bad option. My lukewarm reaction may be in part to a confusion of genre: though this has a lot of elements of fantasy (middle age technology, knights, magic), the wolf-men have a touches of the horror genre to them, and the amount of battle scenes recall a kung-fu movie more than the plot- or character-driven stories that (IMHO) often make the best fantasy reads.
It should also be noted this is a re-release of an earlier Dalglish work, and his works may have gotten better over time (see authors like Stephen Erikson). He is a wildly prolific author (google his upcoming releases!), and his great sales may be from sheer volume of works available. Either way, the staid plot, unsurprising worldbuilding, and shallow human element of Night of the Wolves mean we can’t give it much of a recommendation, but if you’re looking for a quick and battle-packed (and cheap!) read, you could do worse.
Have Our Cake But Not Sure We Want To Eat It Too
The story of an evil Empire is not particularly new—nor is the plot to overthrow it, spearheaded by an unlikely young heroine from a native village. But a heroine whose powers are economic? That’s new.
There are plenty of strong points to The Traitor Baru Cormorant—Seth Dickinson’s polished and imaginative prose, a richly-detailed historical and philosophical setting, a number of surprising plot twists (maybe one too many), and highlighting sexual equality in a fantasy setting. But what really shines are the economics: the evil Empire conquers with paper money and superior trade practices, the heroine puts down and starts rebellions through the power of coin, and even the characters caught in feudal ways of thinking are forced to bow to the believeable dynamics of wealth Dickinson works into his book.
Economics, arguably what drives most wars and cultural shifts, is often the weakest link in fantasy: impossibly rich castles are built on the backs of bronze-age serfs, gold is minted from hills without thought to how that would deflate prices, and we typically get a frustrated meeting or two between the King and his Treasurer to add a little secondary tension to the main plot. Not so in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: economics take front seat, making and breaking Empires, and it’s awesome. Would that as many authors had a better sense for this in their work.
Unfortunately, the rest of Dickinson’s worldbuilding and character development doesn’t live up to his financial nuance. For most of the book we are in a familiar landscape of feudal-Europelike duchies, and the egos and goals of his characters offer few surprises, nor do they change much in the course of the book, beyond perhaps shifting loyalties. The book’s namesake main Baru Cormorant starts off quite likeable, a conquered young girl with a secret (desire for woman in an Empire where it’s seen as deviant) or two (a hidden agenda to destroy the Empire from the inside). She doesn’t change in the course of the book so much as is forced to give up more and more in her quest for political revenge—and (not to reveal too much) ends up giving up so much it gets hard to identify with her and her goals. A quote on the jacket describes the book as harrowing, and it is that—but harrowing is not always fulfilling: we end not with a transformed character so much as a broken (and thoroughly traitorous) one. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but Baru’s final moves destroy most of what I liked about her, and come with a plot twist that is hard to buy (a feint within a feint within a feint).
This is the problem with fantasy: many of us read it because we love the tropes, while at the same time wanting something new. Dickinson delivers on new twists—maybe one too many, in terms of plot and character. Rather than having our cake and eating it too, we end up full of something we aren’t sure, in the last bites, we wanted so much of. If harrowing is your kind of cake, though, or you’re a fan of richly metaphorical writing, or just want to see economics done right, you could do much worse than picking up The Traitor Baru Cormorant