I knew something of what I was getting into when I chose to read this book. Within the first couple of chapters, there are zombies, ogres, goblins and dragons. And panzers. That’s panzers as in German WWII tanks. Heading each chapter is a snippet of seemingly modern-day technology-heavy action. This is a doozie of a tale. It’s as if the author wrote a checklist of all the fantasy elements he liked and threw everything into the mix. Wizards? Check. Golems? Check. Magic swords? Check. Cannons, rifles, pistols... Yep, let’s have all those too. Crusaders, troglodytes, gargoyles, unicorns, giants, werebeasts, elemental spirits, ogres? Why not?
Well, why not is an interesting question. This is certainly a book where anything can happen, and most likely will. There are long - very long - battle sequences where one evil thing after another appears, and just as our heroes appear to have triumphed, something even more horrible appears, yet the eponymous Flank Hawk, a farmboy having no special skills, improbably survives everything. For anyone who likes high-octane action, this is definitely the book for you. But it does mean that a lot of other things get lost by the wayside. There’s no subtlety or depth to the characters, for instance, they are mostly just a succession of names, most of whom will become (literally) cannon fodder before too long. There’s little time for introspection or thoughtful addressing of deeper themes. There’s not much background or world-building or detailed history, although what there is is nicely done. There’s no sense of unique time or place. And there’s no sign of complex motivation. There are just a lot of unspeakably evil things trying to wipe out everyone else and take over the world because - well, just because, I guess.
But interspersed with all the zombified mayhem, there are, eventually, moments of greater interest, to me at least. In fact, almost everything beyond the battlefield is intriguing. The encounter with the seer in the King's City is fascinating. The dragons are cool (but then, dragons are always cool). I liked the whole hierarchy of wizards, and the differences between them: “... the elemental magic of wizards left no trace, while that of an enchanter could linger for hours.” I have a suspicion that the principles were inspired by either online or tabletop gaming, but still, it felt nicely complex. And towards the middle of the book, when Flank Hawk sets out on his Impossible Quest (tm) and forms an unlikely alliance with two passing characters, the story opens up nicely to become something much more interesting.
The writing style is unsophisticated, and there are clunky moments (“Ha ha,” he laughed...) and times when things were clumsily phrased and could have been clearer. The Crusader's pseudo-medieval language grated on me a lot, and there are a few mistakes in it. I would have liked some more information about the wizardly hierarchy - Grand Wizards and Lesser Enchanters and Imperial Seers are a bit hard to sort out without some kind of guide. And a map would have been very useful. Throwaway references to Milan and the Alps are mixed in with talk of the Faxtinian Coalition and the Vinchie Empire and the Reunited Kingdom.
It's hard to imagine any of the bigger traditional publishing houses picking up a book like this. Only a small independent would take a chance on this sort of off-the-wall book. To say it's original doesn't even come close. I would love to be a fly on the wall if the author ever has to pitch this to one of the big six publishing executives. "Well, it's got every fantasy idea you can think of in it.[*] And Nazi technology. And a nuclear holocaust. And an Ebola outbreak. And Crusaders..." Frankly, I love the ideas more than the execution, as the writing perhaps isn't quite up to the ambition of the plot, but it rattles along at a frenetic pace, and in between the overlong battles, there's a nice little story with an interesting backdrop. There were moments when I laughed out loud at the sheer craziness of it - for instance when the trio face down a giant, armed variously with rocks, a spear, a rifle with bayonet, a prayer and an evil magic sword. This is just not your average fantasy book.
Ultimately, it really didn’t work for me. There were too many zombies for my taste, too many mindless and weird creatures altogether, and I would have liked more depth to the characters and less fighting. The interesting combination of the mercenary, the werebeast and the Crusader was one which, had the story slowed down enough to let the characters blossom a little more, could have been very powerful. Although I like a story to surprise me, this is one where there appear to be no constraints at all on what might turn up next. It reminded me a little of my only encounter with the imagination of China Miéville (an encounter I lost, I might add; I just don’t have the right receptors in my brain for that kind of weird). So for me it was no more than two stars. But for those made of sterner stuff, or who like rip-roaring action from start to finish, this is an interesting book with a nicely worked out ending and some clever ideas. There are some really neat details tucked in there which show a great deal of careful thought. I commend the author for his fertile imagination.
[*] There were no fairies, pixies or prophecies. I didn't notice any vampires, either. But pretty much everything else. Even the farmboy turned hero.