SPFBO Review: Altdorf: The Forest Knights, by J K Swift

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – November 21, 2013

Summary: At the end of the thirteenth century, five hundred orphans and second sons are rounded up from villages in the Alpine countryside and sold to the Hospitaller Knights of St John. Trained to serve as Soldiers of Christ, they fight in eastern lands they know nothing about, for a cause they do not understand.

Thomas Schwyzer, released from his vows by the Grandmaster of the Hospitallers, returns to the land of his birth a stranger. Once a leader of men, and captain of the Order’s most famous war galley, he now settles into the simple life of a ferryman. He believes this new role to be God’s reward for years of faithful service fighting the Infidel in Outremer.

Seraina, considered a witch by most, a healer by some, is a young woman with a purpose. A Priestess of the Old Religion, and the last Druid disciple of the Helvetii Celts, she has been gifted by the Great Weave to see what others cannot. Her people need her guidance and protection now more than ever. For Duke Leopold of Habsburg, in his efforts to control the St. Gotthard Pass, builds a great Austrian fortress in Altdorf. Once finished, the Habsburg occupation will be complete, but the atrocities visited upon her people will have just begun.

Thoughts: I’m going to start off by saying this book really wasn’t what I expected. Specifically, because I expected fantasy, since it was part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and, well, it rather lacked in fantastical elements. It was, for is part, pretty decent historical fiction, with vivid descriptions and interesting characters set in medieval Switzerland. And it may well have been alternate history, but I’m not so familiar with that time and place that I can say for sure. But the only elements of fantasy that were really a part of this book were a few small incidents that could have just as easily been hallucination and the vagaries of weather as they could have been magic.

It did, however, get me thinking that sometimes the only difference between fantasy and historical fiction is the setting. Were this to be set in some secondary world, the plot could have remained the same and yet I would have classed it as fantasy. Which is weird, when you think about it.

Altdorf is a relatively quick read, being less than 80,000 words, and with the exception of a large number of missing commas, Swift’s writing style is quite good. The beginning is a little awkward, but after a couple of chapters it’s very easy to fall into the story and get lost in the political games being played. Swift paints a vivid picture of the various settings, drawing the reader into beautiful scenery and medieval buildings.

As in many good stories, there is no clear right or wrong side of the fight; only layers and shades, and that’s what makes this exploration of history so interesting and so realistic. Abuses of power abound on all sides, people have their reasons for doing what they do, and I enjoyed seeing the justifications that everyone used for themselves and their actions. The characters are the high point of the novel, I’d say. There were a couple that didn’t get as much development as I’d hoped, but on the whole, they were quite fleshed-out and unique.

Over all, this reimagining of the William Tell legend is pretty decent, though, unfortunately, one that won’t be passed on to the second round of the SPFBO due to the lack of identifiable fantasy. But for those who enjoy decent historical fiction, then I urge you to give Altdorf a try. It’s currently free for Kindle and Nook, so it’s a no-risk venture if you do want to read it, and the writing is impressive enough to stand out in the self-published crowd. It may not have been entirely to my taste nor what I was hoping for, but I’m still glad to have read it.

3 comments on “SPFBO Review: Altdorf: The Forest Knights, by J K Swift

  1. Interesting point about historical fiction sometimes classifying as fantasy due to secondary world setting; not that much is said about this.

    Jennifer Fallon is the first writer that comes to mind in this context. Guy Gavriel Kay bases his novels usually on a specific historical period that is transformed into a secondary world, but he usually puts more magic into them.

    Could we say that historical-type stories in secondary settings with little magic are an example of “low” fantasy? I would say that Fallon could fit into that category, but not Kay.

  2. Interesting, the first book I read for SPFBO was like an alternative history – I suppose like the comment above – ‘low’ fantasy? Nice to see you enjoyed it though.
    Lynn :D

  3. Pingback: May in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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