A dark fantasy strives for epic grandeur but mostly achieves ponderous squalor.
Edmund Bale desperately wants to be a wizard, but his innkeeper father mocks his studies; after all, their remote village hardly offers much opportunity for magic. Then the bestial servants of the Nethergrim—long thought vanquished—reappear, slaughtering livestock and kidnapping children, including Edmund’s younger brother. Now Edmund has to call upon his scanty spellcraft, the sword of his secret crush, Katherine, and the folk wisdom of the orphan slave Tom to face an ancient, monstrous evil that even the greatest knight and wizard had failed to defeat. This story aims for the detailed worldbuilding of Tolkien and grim realism of George R.R. Martin but unfortunately falls short. Despite flashes of startlingly effective imagery, the prose far too often slips into pretentious pseudo-archaism. Fully two-thirds of the narrative is spent on setup and back story, portraying a dreary landscape filled with petty, cruel and spiteful inhabitants, scarcely worth saving. Edmund himself is whiny, arrogant and self-centered, and his friends are mere caricatures of the spirited tomboy and wise simpleton. At the horrific final confrontation, Edmund does prove unexpectedly clever and valiant; but few will make it far enough to cheer.
One hopes that the inevitable sequels will discard tedious infodumps and dismal travelogues for dynamic adventure and satisfying character growth. (Fantasy. 10-14)