I love me an adventuring party fantasy. You are telling me you’ve got a crew of weirdos with unique skills who are all going to come together to save the world? Sign me up. I can’t wait to see all the extraordinary things they bring to the table as they save the world and bask in their amazing chemistry. Oh, sorry? This is set after they save the world, you say? Oh, and they have all drifted apart, and none of them achieved their happily ever after? And it’s about how they are struggling to find meaning in this new world that they built, yet hate? That sounds good too.
The Sword Defiant, by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, is the latest in a growing number of grimdark weird fantasies about the world after it was saved. Many years ago, when things were simple and pure, our protagonist Sir Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world. They broke the Dark Lord’s various commanders, conquered his holds, and threw him down from the height of his dark power. Along the way, they seized the Dark Lord’s cursed weapons, along with his dread city of Necrad. It turns out that stealing something is the easy part; carrying the burden for the rest of your life is where things get tricky.
Aelfric is familiar with burdens. A simple man with a penchant for sword-fighting and little ambitions, he was chosen by his party as the keeper of the cursed sword Spellbreaker—a terrifyingly powerful sentient weapon with a thirst for bloodshed and an immunity to magic. Now, many years after their iconic victory, Aelfric wanders the world trying to do good and keep his defiant sword in check. But, his party mates are not the same aimless nomads, and they have spent the years since their victory over the Dark Lord shaping the world to their specifications. Yesterday’s eager heroes are today’s weary leaders, and some have turned to the darkness, becoming monsters themselves. If there’s one thing Aelfric knows, it’s slaying monsters. Even if they used to be his friends.
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan wrote The Black Iron Legacy, an impressive piece of weird fantasy, and established himself as a creative mind with strange and wondrous stories to tell. The Sword Defiant continues in this vein and is filled with odd dark magic, disturbing horrors, and thick moral quandaries. While many books these days have explored the idea of “after ever after,” few have managed to fill a cast with fascinating rogues to follow like Ryder-Hanrahan. Aelfric is a man who struggles with direction. A simple, but not stupid, individual with iron convictions and no ambition. He is simply a man looking for a good cause to spend his blood on with enough smarts to know that identifying what is “good” is a lifelong struggle. When one of his most trusted friends suggests that someone in his old adventuring party might be becoming a dark lord in their own right, Aelfric launches on a quest to ferret out the merit of this observation. It leads to a gripping story about the slippery snake that is morality and an engrossing story about a man who is looking for simplicity in a complicated world. He is an incredible protagonist, unlike his sister Olva who I struggled with a lot.
Aelfric splits the narrative with his sister Olva, Aelfric’s last surviving relative who wants nothing to do with him. Due to a series of events, she ends up going on her own quest with a focus on changing preconceived notions and seeing the world as it is: complex. It serves as a fantastic foil for Aelfric’s story, and by the end of the book I found myself extremely invested in Olva, but I struggled a lot with her POV at first. One of the main reasons for this is the POVs barely feel connected other than via a bloodline for most of the book. Olva’s POV is also much more laid back and explorative about the world. It can feel slow and repetitive, which clashes pace-wise with Aelfric’s POV which focuses more on action and court intrigue.
Though I found myself frustrated with Olva’s exploration, it behooves me to note that the world in question is fascinating. Ryder-Hanrahan is a stellar world builder with a mind like a black box of whimsical horrors. His witch elves make for an interesting force in the book, and I love the way he layers atmosphere and personality into the city of Necrad until it becomes a prominent character in the story. The cast of 10 heroes are all interpretations of classic dungeons and dragons classes, and Ryder-Hanrahan does a lot to expand on the tropes surrounding these classes. As someone who really likes all the elements of this book in the genre, Ryder-Hanrahan’s take on space felt refreshing and reminded me a lot of the reasons I fell in love with fantasy in the first place.
I tore through The Sword Defiant in a few sittings despite its enormous size. The plot and world are exciting and beg to be explored, while the protagonists have interesting meditations on the nature of good and evil. There are tense examinations of old friendships, contemplations on the nature and meaning of corruption, and an annoying sword that Aelfric must learn to live with. It is a fever dream adventure fantasy that begs you to take a look at it.
Rating: The Sword Defiant – 9.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.