At first glance this is a fairly standard fantasy story. There's the humble man destined to be king, there's a warrior babe (actually, a whole organisation of warrior babes), there's a villain bent on world domination, and there's a bit of a mystery: whatever happened to the previous king? What about the magic sword, I hear you say? And the prophecy? And there ought to be a wizard... Yep, got those too. There's probably nothing here that the average fantasy fan hasn't seen a hundred times before, and there are no prizes at all for guessing where things will end up, it's obvious right from the start.
But still, there's always room for a new take on the old stories, and this one has a fresh feel to it. The hero has a certain charm, for a start. It's very pleasant in these days of gritty realism and world-weary, cynical heroes to find one who actually behaves like a hero, and rescues damsels (or blokes) in distress; although, being of humble origins, he does all this while wiping his nose on his sleeve and scratching his balls. There's a certain amount of puking and shitting going on too. But - praise be! - no rape, no lovingly described disembowellings, a very minimal amount of torture and the fights are nicely done, realistic and not too long, without wallowing in it. And three cheers for a hero who is himself rescued from time to time. I do like proper teamwork on a quest (well, of course there's a quest, didn't I mention that?).
The setting is pretty traditional, too - a low-technology sort-of medieval world, with a clear class system and the usual array of merchants, craftsmen and the like. The towns have a grubby underbelly, with poverty, thievery and bad sanitation practices. There's some nice original terminology to spice things up: warriors are called battlers, for instance, mercenaries are warrant knights (and also serve as a rough and ready form of law and order) and the local chief of town Whatever is Lordover Whatever. None of it is hard to work out, but it gives the created world a feeling of otherness, as if it's not just another rehash of the medieval period.
Some grumbles. Firstly, the bad guy is just too much of a caricature. He's just evil incarnate, with no redeeming features whatsoever. And he has some very powerful magic, so everything just falls into his hands (with some nice exceptions; the magic sword, it turns out, has a mind of its own). Frankly, I've never quite understood the attraction of world domination myself. If you have all that magic at your disposal, why not use it to become unspeakably rich, or (as in one book I read) to win at gambling, or pull women. Sounds like far more fun than all that bothersome ruling. But there's a nice touch in all this; the villain, it turns out, has a plot-related reason for all that villainy, it's not something trite like being abandoned by his mother, or dropped on his head at birth, or (the usual reason) just because...
Secondly, the inevitable problem with rehashing the traditional tropes is that large parts of the plot are just too damn predictable. Yes, there are occasional minor twists, but basically anyone with some knowledge of the genre could map most of the story out way ahead of time. So although the plot builds up a nice head of steam and rattles along very pleasantly, every once in a while there's a real eye-rolling moment, and the magic is a very convenient device. Not quite deus ex machina, but slightly contrived, shall we say. In the middle things got quite complicated. There are a lot of characters, a lot of hopping about from one town to another, and a lot of pieces of information known by some characters but not by others, and I lost track of who was doing what where - and often why, as well. But the author was obviously on top of it, and it's not the sort of book where you absolutely have to keep up or you miss the point of the ending.
This is not a particularly deep book, so anyone looking for profound subtext should move right along. Nor is it wildly original, there were too many cliches and a certain amount of contrivance. The good characters are a little implausibly good, the bad guys are just a little too evil, and nothing terribly unexpected happens. Nevertheless, it's good solid entertainment, well written and well thought out and with enough freshness to make it palatable to all but the most jaded tastes. I liked the idea that the ex-peasant and future king has appalling table manners (well, he would, wouldn't he?), I liked that there were so many competent female characters, I liked the many minor characters who were well rounded and interesting, without hogging the limelight, I liked the little touches of humour. An enjoyable undemanding read. Three stars.