I remain ashamedly unversed in modern epic or heroic fantasy, despite growing up on Howard, Leiber, Tolkien, Eddison and the rest of the early canon. My dreadful ignorance is not due to any lack of interest, but merely lack of time. The mode involves capacious tomes that come in sets, and unless one catches any certain series at its kickoff, getting up to speed quickly becomes more and more daunting with each new entry.
Nonetheless, I have recently enjoyed work along these general lines by Robert Redick, Daniel Abraham, K. J. Parker, Patrick Rothfuss, and Ken Liu. And of course, I am up-to-date on George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, perhaps the dominant template these days for its successors. (Note that I did not say I am up-to-date on Game of Thrones, a show I will herewith also confess I have never seen. When much of my media-viewing time is spent on acquainting myself with, say, every film Ida Lupino ever made, then hours to be devoted to current miniseries are nonexistent.)
Consequently I think I have some small idea of what fresh things can be done in this genre these days by top-notch talent—as well as how to recognize the shared lineaments of a rousing adventure tale of any stripe—and so I can affirm that the debut novel by Brian Lee Durfee, The Forgetting Moon, while not necessarily breaking new ground, provides plenty of well-crafted spectacle, thrills, suspense, blood, thunder and general sense of wonder. (I call it his debut novel, for although the dust-jacket copy mentions a previous horror novel, the internet reveals no trace of such a book, at least under his own name.)
With any book of this type, a literal “subcreation,” we always need and expect a solid foundation of world-building without the kind of deadly and pedantic information overload rightly derided by M. John Harrison. Durfee’s book hits the mark. First, he creates some fascinating topography conducive to great plotting. Five isles, each self-governing as a whole, yet with a variety of polities within, lie next to each other. So the scale is relatively compact, allowing easy interactions among the peoples. The backstory along historical, political, economic, religious and cultural lines is deftly sketched in by nicely placed referents with any coarse infodumps. Everything seems to cohere realistically, with no imbalances. And the societies differ from each other in satisfying and believable ways.
Additionally, there is the matter of the distinct races. Besides the humans, there are dwarves, the fey-like Vallè, and the hideous oghuls. Now, these categories are hardly brand-new in the genre, but as I said about this book in general, Durfee’s light and clever hand freshens whatever it touches.
The book opens with a killer set piece: a mysterious warrior figure named Shawcroft rescues a three-year-old boy from quasi-supernatural assassins—on the edge of a crumbling glacier, no less. Then we cut to that same lad, named Nail and now aged seventeen, living a humble, even oppressed life in a small fishing village, Gallows Haven. Shawcroft remains by his side, his only “family” and only link to his mysterious past. Several chapters illustrate for us Nail’s personality and temperament and character with some exciting action-filled moments. Then we abruptly leave him to jump to other personages in the vast canvas.
The main factions we are going to observe are the royal Bronachell family in Amadon, the innocent victims in this war. Two sisters—older Jondralyn and younger Tala—serves as our POV figures, and they are both inordinately intriguing: smart, feisty and complicated.
The other camp is that of the aggressors, the invaders from Sør Sevier. What a nasty lot they are, led by the Angel Prince, Aeros, and his sadistic female Knight Archaic, Enna Spades, a woman who makes Elizabeth Báthory look like Pollyanna. In their camp is a more nuanced fellow of some honor, Gault Aulbrek. Mentioning his conflicted role brings me to an observation about Durfee’s troupe. He has a wide spectrum of all types, from the purely evil, like Spades, to the purely good, like Nail. And of course, the folks who are at the interface between good and evil are often the most interesting.
Now, needless to say in a volume of almost 800 pages, there is a lot going on, from battlefield heroics, to duels, to brawls in taverns, to traversals of hidden palace passages, to courtly backstabbing. Durfee stages each incident compactly, with no waste or overstuffing. And the succession of incidents carries the various subplots along at a fair clip. And the main impulse behind this novel—and the whole series to come—is sufficiently majestic to bear the burden of so much storyline.
The main religion of all the isles is the worship of Laijon, whose church has a hierarchy and bureaucracy reminiscent of our own Roman Catholic enterprise at its prime. But within the Church is an esoteric order, the Brethren of Mia, and they know a secret. An apocalyptic event is coming which may be forestalled only by uncovering the long-lost weapons of the Five Warrior Angels and using them in battle. Moreover, the talismans can be hefted only by the five current avatars of the old lineages. And guess who is one of the Five?
Alternating between the countryside trials of Nail and his comrades and the cityside machinations of the Bronachells, Durfee keeps our interests always at a peak. The language he employs during all of this is not archaic, nor overly slangy, but rather a believable speech of another era and place, whose descriptive passages occasionally veer from sturdy visualizations into poetry and gravitas. Rough and scatalogical dialogue also has its appropriate moments.
Now, I should mention one aspect of the book as a kind of consumer caveat. I know enough about contemporary epic fantasy to be aware of the “grimdark” trend. Durfee definitely hoists that flag high. And in a fashion that is not initially obvious. For the first 200 pages or so, the book is not particularly grimdark. But with the invasion of Gallows Haven, the blood commences to flow like red wine at an art gallery opening. Interpersonal relationships assume a kind of Darwinian savagery. And there is really no assurance that any character you have identified with will survive.
It makes for some enthralling reading, to be sure—but perhaps not for those who would rather spend the day dreaming in Rivendell.
Written by: Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.