SPFBO Review: Priest, by Matthew Colville

Buy from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble
Rating – 8/10
Author’s GoodReads page
Publication date – May 28, 2010

Summary: After years spent in the inn he bought and never opened, Heden is drawn out, and sent into a dark forest to investigate the death of a knight.

Nothing is what it seems. Why was Heden chosen for this mission? Who killed the knight and why? Why won’t anyone talk to him? As the Green Order awaits Heden’s final judgement, he finds his morality, perspective, and sense of self are each challenged and then destroyed.

Perhaps nothing, even right and wrong, can survive in the haunted wood.

Thoughts: There’s a certain amount of truth in the stereotypes about self-published fiction. It’s less likely to be as well-edited as traditionally published work. There a lot of bad stuff out there that you have to slog through to find the good stuff. But the good stuff is worth reading when you find it.

This, my friends, is the good stuff.

Heden’s a man with a mysterious and undiscussed past, and man who owns an inn that never opens, who does favours for the church and clearly has a history with them but who seems to see religious dealings in more of a practical light than a spiritual one. He’s a man who knows that the expedient thing isn’t always the thing that saves you the most trouble in the end, a man who baffles people around him by his mix of action and inaction. A man who is chosen by the church of Cavall to investigate the Green Order, and why this reclusive group of knights who have lived in isolation for centuries are dying out, and what that means for the church and for Heden himself.

There’s a high degree of cynicism that goes along with this story, shown primarily in Heden’s dealings with the Green Knights themselves. The Order holds true to knightly ideals, for good and for ill, which is bound to be frustrating when an outsider comes in and starts demanding that people explain themselves when they’ve vowed to keep silent about the deal of their Knight Commander. For all that none of them are comfortable with what happened, and know that Heden is there to judge and to bring justice if he can, they stick to their code and refuse to reveal the truth, a conflict of interest that makes Heden seem to want to beat his head off walls at times. At what point does being loyal to an ideal absolve you of betraying someone who holds to that same ideal? The reader’s frustrations mirror Heden’s as he and the Knights talk circles and get nowhere for much of the book.

Which admittedly was not the most fun to read, and I think a few conversations would have been better cut or at least condensed. Conversations about nothing tended to drag on for pages, and while it certainly gave me a good feel for what Heden was going through, it slowed the story down. And considering Heden’s on a bit of a time limit to solve the Green Order’s problems (without absolution, the Knights can’t leave in defense of a soon-to-be-attacked town, and without truth, Heden can’t give absolution), slowing down the story to focus on circular conversations may not have been the best move.

One thing I really loved about Priest is the way I just fell into the world, a comfortably familiar fantasy setting while still showing signs of personal tweaking by the author. While the book largely focuses on human characters, there are plenty of non-human races mentioned all over the place. Urq, who are not just orcs with a weirdly spelled name but instead seem to resemble trolls from the Elder Scrolls games, aggressive and bred for battle and hatred of other races. Brocc, a sort of anthropomorphic badger people. Polder, which I kept picturing as a cross between a gnome and a hobbit. Little tweaks all over to make the world feel original, fleshed-out and full, while still being a very clear traditional Western-based fantasy.

The biggest drawback this book had, aside from the frustrating circular conversations and the way every piece of information practically had to be squeezed out of characters, was the modes of speech. Now, I like the way the Knights had their cant, talking with “thee”s and “thou”s because that’s how they believe knights should speak. I thought that was a nice touch. But it’s always a bit strange to hear characters say, “Okay,” when you’re dealing with secondary-world fantasy. And people said that a lot in Priest, jarring me out of the reading groove whenever it happened.

I can rationalize this to an extent by my usual belief that characters in secondary-world fantasy are not speaking English, so their words on the page are, essentially, a translation for the reader’s sake. And so I can stretch that a little further to say that when characters said, “okay,” it was in place of a similar slang term in the affirmative, one that’s used as commonly there as “okay” is here. But it still felt out of place, a modern interloper.

But really, those are minor nitpicks when you compare them to the way I just fell into this story and didn’t want to leave it. This is the sort of novel people ought to pay more attention to in the self-published piles. It’s not perfect, but it’s a cut above most of the rest, and it’s a great example of the treasures that can be hiding behind other offerings. I enjoyed Priest from the first page, the tone of the writing and the way the characters came to life so quickly, and I have to say that this one leaves my hands quite well-recommended.

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