Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy
Headline; August, 2013
392 pages (PB)
3.5 / 5 ✪
Welcome to Steelhaven, the new fantasy epic by Richard Ford (or R.S. Ford), the author of the War of the Archons trilogy. Once a beacon of strength and hope amidst the Free States, the great city of Steelhaven is now under threat. King Cael leads their combined armies against the threat, but while the King is away, the city has begun to fester—black magic and criminals tearing the city apart from within. And when the enemy’s Herald comes, the city of Steelhaven is in for the fight of its existence.
Massoum Abbasi has arrived in Steelhaven. Herald of Amon Tugha, he has come to the city on a mission. Here, he comes upon a few dark allies. An assassin and his two sons—Forest and River. River lives to serve his father and the dark lord, but one single act of rebellion may yet ruin it all.
Janessa is the princess of Steelhaven, and as such, her entire life has been mapped. She will court and marry, birth sons, grow old and die far from home, alone and friendless, while her husband flirts with scullery maids and her children war and die. But there is a problem with this grand plan. Janessa, only daughter to King Cael, is already in love, with a man no father would approve. But will she follow her heart, or her father’s plan? She has a difficult choice, even as the world around her falls to ruin.
Waylian is a journeyman magistra, but without magic, he might as well not be. Apprenticed to notorious Red Witch, his life isn’t looking up. Outcast and laughingstock, he must forge ahead, for despite his lack of magic, the fate of Steelhaven may very well fall to him.
Rag has never had anything. A cutpurse and thief, she and her band of friends rove the streets in search of coin, food, and survival. She has lost friends before—such is the life of an orphan. But when Rag loses a unlikely friend, her world overturns. And suddenly survival isn’t enough anymore.
With the fate of Steelhaven at its center, all these character arcs come together to tell its story—whether the city survives the day, or falls to ruin. Welcome, then, to Steelhaven.
First thing I want to point out is that this is just under 400 pages. And all those characters above? That’s not it. In addition to them, there are a trio more: Keira, a temple Shieldmaiden; Nobul, a blacksmith turned soldier; and Merrick, a gambler. And a bad one at that. The first seven chapters (spanning 61 pages) introduce a new character. Chapter 9 introduces another. Not that these characters aren’t interesting or anything, it’s just that the book’s beginning is a bit…. hectic. A bit unfocused. Eight POVs—as Massoum really only has one here and there—is fine, but for such a short book, it’s inadvisable. Indeed, Herald of the Storm is interesting, but it really only gets exciting once you get into it a bit. There’s really no hook in the beginning to keep you reading. I had to fight to get past the first quarter or so, before everything familiarized. Every POV IS interesting, but there are so many of them! It’s a bit overwhelming.
The second thing I want to talk about in HotS is the story. It’s a good one, but. 8 POVs creates a nice contrast, a lovingly crafted tale that once I settled into was quite easy to read. But since the book is so short, everything has to tie up quickly in the end. Like, abruptly. So much so that it really doesn’t. Not that there’s a cliffhanger, exactly, but more that the ending feels… open. Unfulfilling. Like it’s really just a build-up for Book 2. Which would be fine, except that when you have to wait a year between publications, it’s easy to lose interest. I have the second book, but I’ve never gotten to it. Steelhaven was interesting, but it was so easy to lose track of the story when there’s so little settled.
Now I want to talk about the characters. As I mentioned before, there really are too many for the length. The author really should’ve axed some of them. But I understand why he didn’t. For most stories, I have my most and least favorite POVs. Some I look forward to, others I might dread. HotS… I liked Waylian, River and Rag the most. I wasn’t a huge fan of Kaira, though I didn’t dread her chapters. I pretty much liked everyone else. And their arcs all tie-in very nicely. Now, not all them resolve in Book #1, but that’s different. I trust that the author had a plan for them spanning the trilogy, and assume their individual stories are important for the outcome of the overall story. The character building and development are pretty top-notch. There were even a few instances of growth throughout the book, which I would’ve expected to feel unnatural or forced in such a small space. But they don’t. They’re really very well written and designed.
The world is also fairly well built. Though it reminds me a bit of Landfall from The Boy with the Porcelain Blade. What is shown of the world is lively, vivid. In this case, that’s Steelhaven. What isn’t shown, really isn’t mentioned. Landfall is covered in a thick fog. It’s mentioned, but not much. The world outside Steelhaven might as well not even exist. So, the world-building of Herald of the Storm is pretty amazing, but incomplete. Very incomplete. I don’t know if the story ventures outside Steelhaven in the second installment, though I’m interested to see how the world-building changes in the next story. Or, if it does at all.
Overall I was pleased with Herald of the Storm, once I got into it. But it certainly wasn’t ideal. The world-building and character development was top-notch. There was even character growth, despite the shortness of the book. This establishes the characters as the novel’s greatest strength. But they are also it’s greatest weakness. Eight distinct POVs take a lot of time to introduce. When done one after the other, this can often lead to a disconnected, tepid introduction. This is certainly the case with Herald of the Storm, where the first 15% is a slog, and the next nearly as painful, waiting while the story settles in to a good rhythm. But once it gets going, the story is another strength. The end is a bit of a let down, though hopefully that’s solved in the sequel. I guess I don’t really have an answer whether the read’s worth it. Not yet. I’ll have to see how I like the 2nd one yet. It’s on my Top TBR for the year. Hopefully, after I read it, it’ll be enough to recommend Herald of the Storm, but we’ll see.
Steelhaven continues with The Shattered Crown. If you’d rather try something else by Ford, I’ve heard good things about the War of the Archons. Book #1, A Demon in Silver, was published in 2018 by Titan.