In the start to a new heroic-fantasy series, a corps of elite magically mutated “hybrids,” humanoid creatures bred to serve an unworthy king, go rogue during a period of war and take destiny into their own hands, wings and claws.
Raines blends elements of mutant-superhero-comics team-ups (the X-Men in particular) with the familiar tropes of young-adult warrior fantasy. The Royal Guard of the weakling King Shale are a proud, fearless and formidable squad of magical hybrids, human beings whose DNA has been combined, via spell work, with creatures of myth and lore borrowed from varied world cultures. Thus, we have Shadow the gremlin-man, Howl the hotheaded werewolf, Silver the unicorn-guy, Jinx the harpy-girl (who, despite her heritage, is quite attractive), Crunch the Sasquatch-like hulk and more, all with their specific superpowers and quirks. As they flee the excruciating boredom of their security duties around the castle to chase marauders or assist in sieges, the Royal Guards’ protracted, Stan Lee-level bickering among themselves consumes a lot of dialogue (sprinkled with anachronistically modern slang). That and the made-for-Marvel fight scenes (using not just strength and speed, but psi-power and other mojo) distracts from Raines’ real achievement—he forges a decent fantasy saga in which boundaries of good and evil are intriguingly uncertain. Allegiances and alliances shift, and the Royal Guard may actually be closer to the villain end of the spectrum at times as they pursue a mysterious, resourceful assassin whose true identity and mission, a neat surprise, closes this flawed but lively debut. With foreshadowing of future installments promising to explore Shale in more detail, this book should find a modest audience in this realm’s readership.
“The X-Men of Shannara,” if you will, skirmish against elves, rebels, their own masters and, occasionally, the reader’s patience, but ultimately win the battle for the attention of young followers in the genre.