I can’t remember how I found my way to Indies Unlimited but once there I was hooked. One of the features I liked the most was [and is] ‘Ed’s Casual Friday’, a weekly post written by M.Edward McNally. Witty and always beautifully written McNally’s articles made me wonder what kind of a writer he was when he was ‘at home’, slaving over a hot keyboard. After a little diligent searching I discovered that he writes fantasy. Yay! After sci-fi, fantasy is my next favourite genre so buying one of his books was a natural progression.
So which book did I buy and what did I think of it? The book was The Sable City, book 1 of The Norothian Cycle and I was so impressed with it that I will soon be buying book 2!
As a genre, Fantasy is a strange beast; when it’s done well it’s wonderful [think Robin Hobb, Tad Williams etc], however getting it right is not easy. Not only must the author create vivid characters who leap off the page and demand to be loved, or hated, those characters must also live in a world that has depth and a sense of solid reality to it. McNally has achieved both with The Sable City. The characters are well written and each has a past and little quirks that make them immediately recognizable. One of my favourites is a devil named Balan. Despite being one of the ‘villains’ of the piece his wit and sartorial elegance make his every appearance a joy to read. Tilda, the main character in the book is strong, honourable and tenacious yet at the same time believably female, a rarity amongst male authors. She grows as a person in response to the events of the book, as do the two male characters – Dugan and Zebulon – but the growth never seems forced, rather it is a seamless, natural process that you would expect from ‘real’ people. The less major characters also experience growth. None of them remain static and that is one of the things that makes the book such a pleasure to read.
A good story however, requires more than just good characters. A good story also requires a believable world for those characters to inhabit. That world has to have geography. It has to have climate. It has to have varied and interesting cultures. And it has to have history. In the real world everyone has a sense of the past, even those who have no interest in formal History. The past is where we came from. It not only tells us where we have been as a people or a race, it informs our present. In many ways history is what motivates a whole people so a story without history is like a painting with only the main features coloured in. McNally knows this and his world is rich in references to the past, making the reader feel that the present is just an extension of what came before. As it should be.
But what is The Sable City about? What is the story that pulls us along?
In essence The Sable City is the story of a quest. The quest begins in the island state of Miilark where the trader family of Deskata suddenly finds itself without a direct blood heir. The only Deskata left who could save the family was exiled years before so Captain Block is sent on a mission to try and find the exile and bring him home. Block chooses only a Guilder apprentice by the name of Matilda Lanai to help him as secrecy is paramount. And so the quest to find John Deskata begins. They do not have much to go on. They know that Deskata has brilliant green eyes, a family trait, but not much else. Along the way they meet a deserter from the Legionnaires called Dugan who seems to know where Deskata may have gone but he has his own agenda and the plot soon thickens with deceptions large and small that add an interesting element of ‘who dunnit’ to the story. As the plot unfolds we are introduced to a colourful array of characters that includes a samurai from the Far West, a bored Circle Mage, a Duchess incognito and a mysterious woman called Nesha Tarii who has a seductive effect on all the men she comes in contact with… but she is not what she seems. And then of course there are the dragons.
I could say more but that would be giving too much away so I will content myself with saying that all these strange characters are brought together by fate and their own personal quests in a mysterious city of black stone called Vod’ Adia but the ending is not something you will be able to predict. That is one of the things I liked most about the book. I like being surprised and I think you will too.
The only small criticism I have of The Sable City is that at times the dialogue feels too… modern. Or to be more exact, too familiar, as if the banter was happening between two people in present day New York or some other large city. It did not happen often but when it did I would lose that sense of being elsewhere, just for a moment or two. I know many people will consider this criticism to be nit-picking but for me it was a little disconcerting. Other than that The Sable City did not jar with typos or poor grammar or awkward phrasing. It was well written and well edited and the story flowed just the way a good story should.
I think I can honestly say that this is the first fantasy book I have read in a while that I enjoyed and it is definitely the first indie fantasy that I have finished with a warm sense of satisfaction. The Sable City is a good story and I am looking forward to returning to the world to learn more. I recommend it to anyone who wants more from fantasy than just magic and battles. There is magic and there are battles but there is also much, much more. You will not be disappointed.