His name is Farden. They whisper that he’s dangerous. Dangerous is only the half of it. Something has gone missing from the libraries of Arfell. Something very old, and something very powerful. Five scholars are now dead, a country is once again on the brink of war, and the magick council is running out of time and options. Entangled in a web of lies and politics and dragged halfway across icy Emaneska and back, Farden must unearth a secret even he doesn’t want to know, a secret that will shake the foundations of his world. Dragons, drugs, magick, death, and the deepest of betrayals await.
I normally don’t accept self-published novels for review for all the usual reasons given, but the most important one is time. With work, the girls, and Wiebe, my reading and blogging time is limited and if I’m going to read and review something do I want to risk reading a lot of not so good books to find that one gem or stick with non-self-published work and run less of a risk that at least the writing is up to scratch? I chose to go with the latter even though I realise I might miss out on some really good books that way. So you might be surprised to find me reviewing The Written by Ben Galley, which is a self-published book. However, I’d seen some good reviews of his work though and read an interesting interview with him on Mark Lawrence’s blog, so when Ben approached me to review his work, I decided to take a leap and say yes. And on the whole I’m glad I did. The Written being Galley’s debut novel there are some first novel mistakes, I had some issues with the writing that are completely an issue of taste, and there is one problem with his female characters that really bothered me, but in essence The Written is a good story and one I mostly enjoyed.
So what were those first novel mistakes? First of all, there is a lot of head-hopping going on, sometimes within the same paragraph, which often forced me to go back and reread the last few lines to figure where exactly the switch took place. There’s a similar problem with dialogue, which made it unclear who was speaking. Secondly, at times his prose felt a little purple, though I’d say it was more lavender than purple actually. Galley often employed quantifiers or descriptors where to me they seemed unnecessary, which when eliminated would have made for a tighter narrative. Of course the latter might also be seen as one of the stylistic choices Galley made and whose success or failure is due to the reader’s personal tastes. For me there were several choices Galley made that sat uneasily with me. For example, given that the identity of the villain is meant to be a secret for much of the novel, Galley took a lot of trouble to write his scenes without giving his identity away. Unfortunately, he also started several of the hero’s sections that way, which was again confusing and after the first few times annoyed me as they shook me out of the narrative. He also tended to refer to his characters by their function or profession, instead of by their names, which I found didn’t suit my tastes. So instead of saying “Farden woke up with a pounding headache.” he’d say “The mage woke up with a pounding headache.” – I made these sentences up, by the way, these aren’t literal quotes from the book – and while there is nothing wrong with that, it just didn’t work for me. I also had a hard time getting into the novel, as in the first seventy or so pages none of the characters seemed really sympathetic and I couldn’t figure out which set of characters the reader was supposed to root for, though to be fair, if I’d gone back to check the cover copy, this might not have been as unclear.
The one thing that I really had a problem with that can’t be put down to first-novel-itis or personal taste is Galley’s treatment of his female characters. To start off with, there aren’t that many, at least not named ones. I can think of five, two of whom were dragons. The other three are, in order of appearance, Farden’s maid, his ladylove, and the Siren Queen. Elessi, Farden’s maid, is his faithful, loving servant, who loves her master, but who he won’t let get too close and she doesn’t really have any agency. Cheska, Farden’s lover, does have agency, but is she’s seemingly Gwen Stacy’d, to give Farden one more reason to fight. Svarta, the Siren Queen, is a powerful woman, but is portrayed throughout the book as an angry, sour, and hard woman and generally considered by Farden to be an unpleasant bitch. Of the three, only Cheska is developed further and Galley subverts her trope nicely, but on the whole I missed having a sympathetic female character with agency of her own.
Despite all these criticism, there was a lot to like about the book; otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it, no? Galley creates an interesting world inhabited by humans, dragons, vampyres, and hints at more mythical creatures. I especially enjoyed the time spent with the dragons in Nelska. Their society was very interesting and Galley’s descriptions of their home, the various dragons and their characterisations were quite compelling. After the rocky start, Farden becomes quite a likeable sort and I got invested in his story and wanted to find out what happened. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops after the revelations in this book and the experiences he’s had. Similarly, once the villain is revealed and his true motivations are laid bare, the struggle in The Written takes on a truly epic scope and it’ll be quite interesting to see where Galley goes with this conflict in the next two books. The plot of The Written is quite engaging, with part conspiracy, part mystery, and part diplomatic mission and some really well-written fight scenes.
In the end, reading my first self-published novel was a mixed experience. Yes, I did have issues with the book, but by the last third of the book, the story had taken over and I did rather enjoy myself. I’ll be reading and reviewing the follow up to The Written in the next few weeks and I’m hoping that some of the debut novel flaws will be absent from The Pale Kings and that the female characters will have more of a positive role to play. But I definitely don’t regret breaking my own review policy and if you like epic fantasy, The Written is worth a look in.
This book was provided for review by the author.