Are you a fan of historical fiction? Alternate history? Particularly that which happens to be based loosely around the Roman Empire? Do you enjoy reading about rural uprisings, moral quandaries, sword fights, or Imperial politics?
If so, I strongly encourage you to hop on over to Amazon to pick up an ebook copy of Amanda McCrina’s debut novel, HIS OWN GOOD SWORD.
Why, you ask? A needless question, you’ll find, once you open the book. The tension begins on the very first line: “In truth he’d rather not go to Vessy.” A hook – it drew me in instantly to ask, why not? What awaited him at Vessy? What is Vessy, for that matter? The conflict is immediately set and drawn, and I was carried into the book wondering what on earth Tyren had done to be so worried about his arrival at Vessy.
It doesn’t stop there. Tyren Risto, the nineteen-year-old son of a governor and former military man, is the younger son and therefore a prime choice for a military officer. After two years of training, Tyren has just been given his first official commission. Unfortunately, thanks to a scuffle with the powerful Marro family, Tyren’s commission is in Souvin, a tiny garrison in the backwaters of the Empire, a dishonor to his family and a bitter price to pay for his one act of disobeiance. Not only that, but word is stirring in the hilly town that there are rebels around, rebels who intend to throw off the Imperial yoke and reclaim the ancient tribal leadership of the land.
The story is told primarily from Tyren’s perspective, with occasional jumps back to his father, Torien. As Tyren struggles to prove himself as the garrison commander and to bring the rebellion to heel, Torien grows more and more uncomfortable with an age-old rivalry between his family and the Marro family. The stories move parallel; as Tyren confronts increasing threats from the wilderness (called Outland), his father is attacked and must face increasing political alienation. And as Tyren makes difficult choices in a world where he feels disconnected from both sides, his father, too, finds himself alone and isolated in a dangerous world.
The two protagonists are remarkably well-developed, with deep-seated internal conflicts, self-doubt, and feelings of guilt. Some of the secondary characters get great treatment: Muryn, a farmer in Souvin, is particularly interesting, as is the villain, Luchian Marro, about whom I would love to hear more. Others are less developed, though it’s worth nothing that McCrina’s characters never do anything that feels out of character – which is a difficult thing to achieve with such an extensive cast.
This brings me to perhaps my only problem with the book, which is that the characters’ names are far too similar. Not that the characters themselves are too similar – they’re all distinct and notable. But the names begin to run together very early on. Choiro, Cesino, Chaela, Challe, Chaelor, are all names we’re introduced to in the very beginning. One’s a city, one’s an ethnicity, three are first names. Then we get into the R’s: Rovero, Risto, Rani, Risun, and Regaro, are all introduced in fairly rapid succession. Then the V’s: Vione, Varro, Varen, Verio, Viere, Vessy. By this point my head is spinning. Who’s who? Which one’s the character and which one’s the city? Which one’s a building? Are any of them surnames? And by the time we get into the M’s, I’m just totally lost: Marro, Mureno, Moien, Muryn, Maego, Magryn. I think I finally got the hang of all the names right around the last few pages of the book. Oops.
But honestly? A little hindrance with the names is the worst I can say? It’s telling, too, that despite the names running together, the characters themselves were all well-identified, with strong individual characteristics and defined personalities. No one lacked for an identity or dimensionality.
Finally, there is McCrina’s writing itself. It’s quiet. It’s not loud, or forceful, or banging around like a lot of writers do. It runs like a river carrying you gently to the mouth of the ocean – swift, determined, calm. It’s a style that lends itself well to the kinds of ethical dilemmas posed in the book. When is it right to kill an unarmed, wounded man – even if that man could be responsible for the deaths of hundreds more? When is it right to stand up for the occupying Empire that you’ve sworn to serve, and when is it right to defend the simple farmers who seek nothing more than to feed themselves? McCrina’s answers to these questions are as complicated and nuanced as the questions themselves, and her writing style, which emphasizes thought rather than action, only serves to promote the dilemmas and choices faced by each character.
It was a pleasure to read this book and it comes highly recommended. Not to mention this young lady is only twenty-four years old. Can you say budding talent? So do yourself a favor and read her book. And follow her on Twitter. Stay abreast of this writer – there are big things in store for her. I’m sure of it.
4 out of 5 stars for HIS OWN GOOD SWORD. Highly recommended for fans of action-adventure, historical fiction, Roman history, and fantasy.