Summary: Lannick deVeers used to be somebody. A hero, even. Then, he ran afoul of the kingdom’s most powerful general and the cost he paid was nearly too much to bear. In the years that followed, his grief turned him into a shadow of his former self, and he spent his days drowning his regrets in tankards of ale.
But now an unexpected encounter casts Lannick upon an unlikely path to revenge. If he can just find the strength to overcome the many mistakes of his past, he can seize the chance to become a hero once more.
And with an ancient enemy lurking at the kingdom’s doorstep, he’d better…
Thoughts: Every so often, when reading self-published novels, you run across one that makes you wonder why the author chose to buck tradition and go with self-publishing as their main option. Was it because self-publishing was quicker than sending manuscripts to agents and/or publishers and hoping for the best? Was it because they saw an opportunity to make a greater financial return on their efforts? Was it because they did apply with agents and publishers and their novel was turned down?
I sincerely hope it wasn’t the last one. David Benem’s What Remains of Heroes is exactly the kind of novel that breaks down the stereotypes about the quality and content of self-publishing, and makes me think that if a traditional publisher did pass on this one, it was to their detriment.
Lannick is a man who used to be someone. Loving family, prestige, captain of an army. Until he made a mistake and paid the price, and now spends his days drunk and in debt. Until he makes another, more costly mistake, and finds himself thrust into a plot of old gods and new heroes. Bale is a priest, channeling magic in the name of the goddess of light, studying forbidden histories and legends that turn out to have more than a grain of truth to them. Through good luck or ill, he is sent to investigate the murder of the head of his religion, to uncover the truth about strange dealings and religious secrecy. Karnag is a mercenary, the man who killed the head of Bale’s order, whose companions now watch in confusion and fear as he turns aside from his old life and heads toward a new frontier of blood and carnage as war approaches, following the new voices and urges in his head that tell him his hands will never be stained with enough blood.
Within the space of half a chapter, I found myself wanting to keep reading with no interruptions. What Remains of Heroes dips into the darker side of fantasy without being overly depressing or brutal. There’s plenty of violence, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in appropriate levels for the various situations, and none of it feels like the author was trying to be dark and edgy for the sake of being dark and edgy. Each of the primary characters feels, to a degree, out of place in the world at large, even if they have their place within their particular microcosm, and especially with Lannick and Bale there seems almost a desperate attempt to make sense of where they fit in, what their role in. Karnag’s struggle is of a similar but different sort, trying to adjust to how he has changed and why, and Fencress’s challenge is, in part, figuring out what happened to Karnag.
It’s worth taking a moment to express here that while there’s a serious minority of female characters in this book, and Fencress’s story is very much entwined with Karnag’s, Fencress herself is not some cardboard cutout character, intended only to show what’s happening with Karnag. Her role starts small and grows much larger as the story continues, and she is very much a solid well-defined character in her own right. I loved reading her chapters, because she’s a great character, and also the type of female character that doesn’t get showcased very often in male-dominated fantasy. Most female characters in such books are either prizes or backdrops for the hero, or else they’re good fighters or mages and can hold their own in a fight, absolutely, but are also held up as an ideal, a paragon of light and good. Fencress is a mercenary, at home with intimidating and putting knives in people if they stand between her and her goal, and she knows it. She’s nobody’s ideal and she has no interest in pretending to be so, and for that, I love her.
There’s some good worldbuilding in here, too. It, like many other books I’ve encountered in this challenge, is built on a foundation of medieval European fantasy, but that’s no a bad thing, and there’s still plenty of scope for originality within those bounds. And Benem works to create a dark fantasy world that’s manages to be familiar without feeling overly stereotyped, complex without being bogged down in complications from attempts to add too many never-before-seen things. It may not be the most original setting, but it is well crafted, and it feels as complete as any other good fantasy world I have encountered. It doesn’t break any boundaries, but it’s very good at being what it is.
Benem’s writing shines amid a sea of lackluster novels, and it’s no surprise to see that What Remains of Heroes passed to the second round of the SPFBO challenge. It’s a strong first novel, impressive and well done, and it’s got wonderful appeal to fans of dark traditional fantasy who are looking for some new voices. This was a fantastic find, and I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series! I expect that What Remains of Heroes will be a strong contender for the crown in the SPFBO, when the final scores are tallied.