A novel follows a new student at the Black River Academy of Swordcraft and Spellcraft.
Durren Flintrand, a young ranger (a fantasy analog to a forest scout in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales), is introduced to a diverse group of other beginning students. There is the aptly named Tia Locke, a rogue (a fantasy genre professional thief), the oafish Hule Tremick, a fighter (an equivalent to a mercenary soldier), and Areinelimus Ironheart Thundertree, a tremulous female dwarf (in the Tolkien sense) wizard. Together, the four of them form “Party eighteen,” a sort of trainee adventure squad for fighting monsters, exploring mysterious places, and protecting the weak and helpless. Accompanied by Pootle, a disembodied eyeball assigned to be their observer, they are thrown into perilous operations by the teachers at the academy. With a mismatched set of personalities and diverse skill sets, the members of Party eighteen find themselves frequently at odds and in one another’s way. They must learn to work together and get along, overcoming their weaknesses and growing in confidence, skill, and ability to cooperate. Because of their youth and inexperience, they begin their “studies” with relatively small hazards—their first task is to recover merchant goods stolen by rat-people bandits. Nothing is perfectly safe, not even unicorns in the forest. But the young students’ learning curve is matched by ever-increasing risks, and soon they find their basic training is in the shadow of greater evils than the academy had ever warned them about. Tallerman (Passive Resistance, 2016, etc.) and debut author Wills freely borrow from the pop culture of “Dungeons & Dragons,” “World of Warcraft,” and similar fantasy adventure games, down to the “Level One” in the book’s title. In this way, the text partakes of both the strengths and weaknesses of “gaming fiction” (a notoriously lightweight subgenre of fantasy) as well as the obvious parallels to J.K. Rowling’s famous wizarding school. Familiarity takes some of the wonder away from the fantastic, but the authors compensate with superb pacing, competent writing, well-described action, fun situations, and appealing characters. The first in a series, the book remains a pleasant confection.
Well-crafted fantasy fiction about a team of young trainees tackling dangerous missions.