In a significant genre change from his Needed Killing series (“cozy mysteries with a Southern flair”), that feature amateur sleuth James Crawford, author Bill Fitts has turned to the realm of fantasy with two novels — The Screaming Sword and Sokhal’s Star. They are the first two books in Song of Narne, a promising series intended for young adults, but entirely suitable for not-so-young adults as well.
The necessary elements of classic fantasy are present — a perilous quest in a land of mountains and plains, an old, dangerous city, a lost empire, an ancient library, a wandering people who hold a tradition of prophecy, an artifact of power. And characters of all kinds — soldiers, thieves, assassins, merchants, magicians both good and evil. And cats. Cats are more than incidentals in these stories; they take an active role in furthering the plot.
The story centres around the young mage Kenrad and his faithful companion, reformed thief Blumgar the Fat. Kenrad must contend with a tragic loss in his childhood, and the development of powers he neither fully understands nor controls. He carries an artifact of power which is, unbeknownst to him, sought by an evil magician. Blumgar is always at Kenrad’s side to protect him from dangers and to ground him in the earthy matters of life — food and drink, companionship and humour.
Three over-arching elements become evident as one reads — the peril of magic, the Song of Narne, and a mental discipline necessary to those who seek knowledge and understanding. Magic isn’t simple or easy in these books; it is elusive, perhaps damaged, and feared by most. The Song of Narne emanates from nature, and when perceived and interpreted by skilled women called Listeners, it may reveal the future. The Listeners employ a meditation technique called Omeras to connect with the Song.
The principal characters, and many of the secondary ones, are fully developed, realistic and memorable. Their interactions are conveyed in lively dialogue, often presenting essential information about the world they inhabit and its history. It’s easy to feel at home in this world, and engaged with its peoples. Ordinary, non-magical activities of trade and commerce, travel and camping, strategy and the use of arms are worked into the plot in ways that are interesting and informative.
Fitts carefully crafts each scene to introduce settings, situations and groups of characters, moving from place to place, but clearly building up a mosaic which becomes increasingly complex and interesting. The reader is never at risk of losing track of the plot threads or becoming confused.
The author has supplied an extensive glossary of characters, places and concepts. In the best fantasy tradition, there is a map of the lands in which the books take place, but I found it a little hard to read the place names on my e-reader. Displayed on a computer screen, it was perfectly legible. A direct link to the map in the table of contents would help a reader easily find it when needed. (A colour version of the map is available on the author’s website).
Fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis will enjoy these two books and hope for more. I suspect there will be more, because there remain many enticing loose threads at the end of Sokhal’s Star. The books must be read in order, starting with The Screaming Sword; although subplots are resolved at the end of each one, elements introduced in Book 1 are necessary to enjoy Book 2.
Information about the books and their author is available on his website.
This review is specific to the ebook versions of these books. I received free copies with no expectation of reviews.