The author describes this as a bildungsroman (I had to look that up; it's a posh word for a coming of age story). As such, it's a very common theme in fantasy, but that doesn't make it uninteresting, and there's always scope for a retelling of the old stories, if the author can add an original twist or two. Here, the young man coming of age is Val, who sets off with his friend Uriel and a gnome called Maryl on a Lifequest, the test all young men and women have to undergo in order to be recognised as adult. They are, however, allowed to choose the objective of the Lifequest themselves, and Val chooses a near-impossible one - to find a cure for an illness which afflicts members of his village, and which is ultimately fatal. There's also a restriction (and a fairly arbitrary one, it has to be said), which is that the person on a Lifequest isn't allowed to kill another human.
The three questers make rather a nice group. Val is the idealistic one who's also a fine warrior and discovers magical abilities within himself, Uriel is the cynical one with hard-to-control magical abilities, and Maryl the gnome is an empath who sees the emotions in all sentient beings, and can manipulate them. They have a nice jokey relationship, in between battles. The other characters are less interesting and tend to fall into tropes: the beautiful warrior babe (a couple of those), the roguish thief turned revolutionary, and so on. The people of Val's village are introduced at great length early on, and some of them are interesting and I would have liked to know more about them and the village.
The plot - well, there's a quest which allows our three intrepid heroes to wander around the landscape, and there's a series of set-piece battles, which actually have nothing at all to do with the quest, and more to do with the idealistic Val being distracted by every captured slave and mistreated farmer's daughter and oppressed town he comes across, and deciding he has to save them. Despite some spectacular failures along the way and Uriel pointing out repeatedly that he can't save everybody (good advice, Val!), he keeps on doing it, and dragging his friends along too. Considering Val is honour bound not to kill any humans at all, the body count is quite alarmingly high, and I found it hard to believe he could be quite so naive as to get involved time after time. The fights are very well choreographed, however, and even I could follow them easily (this is a compliment - my eyes usually glaze over at these blow-by-blow accounts).
The world-building is sketchy, to say the least. There seems to be an assumption that the landscape is too ordinary to need description - there are woods and farms and so forth - but I would have liked a bit more detail. ‘The trip through the dwarven tunnels was uneventful’ doesn’t exactly set my sense of wonder on fire. The underground city is dismissed with ‘Dwarven wrought buildings towered hundreds of feet into the air, as did statues and monuments’. One setting (which is introduced as a city, quickly becomes a town, and then is a mere village) merits no description at all. Surely Val, from his nameless village on the frontier, would notice whether the buildings were similar to those of home or very different (bigger, perhaps, or stone-built, or more ornate). What are the streets like, do people dress differently, is the food any different here? But sadly we never find out. And there's no map (every fantasy story that steps outside a single location needs a map, in my opinion). However, there is a fabulous array of strange creatures, some just tossed in as background to a scene or turning up at a battle. I particularly liked the giant insect thingy, used for riding, and the burrowing land-shark - very ingenious.
The magic system is extremely carefully thought out, and very well described when it happens. I find it a little too powerful for my taste, especially since absolutely everybody has some innate ability (varying from race to race) but that's a personal preference and not a criticism. There is always a price to pay when it's used, and it's often not quite enough to win the battle, so it's not quite the get-out-of-jail-free card it could be. I very much liked Maryl's empathy magic, and one of his battles, where he fights a hive-mind of wolf-like beasts within his own mindscape, is brilliantly done and very evocative. The healing powers are a little too convenient, but again, that’s just me.
A minor quibble: humans are called 'humes' in this world, and magic is called 'magick'. The former seems fairly arbitrary to me. The latter is, according to the author, a convention to distinguish it from the sleight of hand card tricks and so on performed by entertainer magicians. I can't see myself that there would be any confusion. Within a fantasy story, the use of magic is so commonplace, it surely needs no special measures to explain it. Besides, the ways magic occur in the book's world make it very clear that it has nothing to do with trickery.
And a major quibble: the story may be great, but the writing needs a very thorough edit. There are few spelling mistakes, but there are some grammatical errors that had my inner pedant, head in hands, screaming. The worst are things like 'he had ran' and 'he had tore'. Apart from that, the writing is merely heavy-handed at times. There are places where the point of view head-hops alarmingly, which is disorientating. Then there are pacing issues. In order to get to the action more quickly, presumably, a lot of setup is skipped over. For example, in the hostile city/town/village, Maryl uses his empath's magic to get them into the boss's house, by manipulating the servants' minds, but we never see this, it's simply mentioned in passing, and we jump straight from entering the town to breaking into the house. A paragraph or two describing how he does this would have been nice. There are occasional infodumps, places where an ability or a piece of history is simply explained, as if in the classroom, and a few places where modern terminology intrudes: 'it sucks' for example, or ‘flying by the seat of his pants’, and a rather eloquent and introspective section where Val is musing on his willingness to kill ends with talk of endorphins, andrenaline and hormones. Now, it's not impossible that they would have known and used such terms, but it stopped me in my tracks and spoiled a very nice moment. However, the writing improves noticeably as the book goes on.
There's a nice little story here. There are some very original and creative creatures, the magic system is well done, even if it’s a little too powerful for my taste, the battles are believably choreographed and the characters are interesting, especially the complex Uriel. Val’s journey from ordinary villager to war hero to legend is realistically detailed, and although he’s inclined to rush in overconfidently, he often pauses to reflect on the consequences afterwards. There are moments of real depth in these introspective interludes. Unfortunately, the plot is just too flimsy and episodic, there's a lack of description and the writing issues interfered with my enjoyment. For those who like lots of action with an array of weird beasties and a hero who always manages to rise to the occasion and aren't bothered by the rest, you'll love this book, and a good edit would give it the professional polish it currently lacks. Unfortunately, the negatives kept it to three stars for me.