Richard Ford – Herald of the Storm

richardford-heraldofthestormWelcome to Steelhaven…

Under the reign of King Cael the Uniter, this vast cityport on the southern coast has for years been a symbol of strength, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout the Free States.

But now a long shadow hangs over the city, in the form of the dread Elharim warlord, Amon Tugha.

When his herald infiltrates the city, looking to exploit its dangerous criminal underworld, and a terrible dark magick that has long been buried once again begins to rise, it could be the beginning of the end.

Epic fantasy is my first love and even if I’ve since broadened my scope and fallen in love with other subgenres, a good epic tale will always catch my eye. The description for Richard Ford’s Herald of the Storm in Headline’s spring catalogue certainly jumped out at me and I was really pleased to be sent an ARC earlier this year. I’d read Ford’s previous novel Kultus last year and while I had some issues with it – largely due to some really foul language and some uneven world building – I really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to seeing how Ford would take on epic fantasy. And I have to say, I really liked Herald of the Storm. There were some elements that didn’t completely work for me, but Ford’s clearly grown as a writer and Herald of the Storm is a totally different sort of book than Kultus was.

Ford tells his story through the viewpoint of seven different characters, with each chapter being told from one character’s point of view. Now, I like multiple viewpoint epics quite a lot, but they are quite difficult to pull off and there’s a risk the reader might not connect strongly or at all to some of the main characters. In addition, sometimes it makes the story jump arcs so many times that the narrative loses its flow. For me, Herald of the Storm suffered mostly from the latter of these issues, though I did have favourites among the main characters. It takes quite a while before some of these characters pair up, which means that there are seven storylines to follow and whenever one got really moving, we’d get to the next chapter and jump to another character, not knowing when we’d return to the one we just left. This frustrated me as it disturbed the flow of the narrative and I found myself leafing ahead to figure out how much I’d have to read to get to the next chapter for the character we’d just left behind. However, all the storylines felt necessary to the plot, bar two, Rag’s and River’s, but I think they might be more pivotal in the next book in the series. Why do I say they didn’t feel as crucial to the plot as the rest? Because I felt that a number of the impacts they have on the story, mostly through impact on other main characters, might have been accomplished in the story through other means and not changed the story that significantly. But, again, seeing where they end up at the end of the novel, I can see them having far more impacting roles in the next book. However, I did enjoy both of these characters, so I wouldn’t have wanted to miss them either.

The protagonists cover all the different strata of life found in the city of Steelhaven. We see the criminal underbelly of the city represented by Rag, River, and Merrick; the working class represented by Nobul; the ecclesiastics represented by Kaira; the scholars represented by Waylian; and the nobility represented by Janessa. This allows us to get to know the city’s populace in all walks of life and see how they regard the others, even if in the main they don’t consciously cross each other’s paths. My favourites were Nobul, Waylian, Kaira, and Merrick. I found them and their arcs most compelling. Nobul is a veteran of the country’s bloodiest battle, Bakhaus Gate, which had him see horrors he’s never forgotten and left him a changed man. It also meant he wasn’t the husband and father he should have been, which drives him to leave behind his life as a smith and join the city watch, the Greencoats. Through Nobul, we get to see the darker side of Steelhaven and how powerless the militia feels and how corrupts many of its members are. I appreciated Nobul’s awareness of his vicious streak and his genuine grief and guilt at his treatment of his son. Ford makes him sympathetic but with a dangerous edge and a character that is on the way to redemption which is always an enjoyable thing. Waylian, on the other hand, doesn’t need redemption, as he’s largely an innocent. A young student at the Towers of Magisters, he’s feeling out of his depth and lonely and is on the point of giving up. His is a traditional epic fantasy character trope, that of the young man that discovers his place in life among the doings of the great and powerful. I’m a sucker for the trope, so it’s no surprise I liked Waylian, but I liked Ford’s treatment of him, taking him to the depths of despair and leaving him more confident, but still unsettled in his new position. Kaira, the Shieldmaiden of Vorenna, is trained as a warrior and is magnificent with a blade, but she is given an assignment that will test her and her allegiance to the Temple to the limits. I liked her a lot and especially once she is paired up with Merrick, their chapters became some of my favourites. The interaction between these two was priceless; Kaira not quite sure what to make of the rake Merrick and Merrick completely stymied by the fact Kaira is rather unreceptive to his legendary charms. There is a lot of humour there. Both Merrick and Kaira go through a lot of change and face many demands on their conscience throughout the book and where they end up at the end of the book was really cool and I can’t wait to find out where they go from here.

The only character I found somewhat disappointing, was Janessa. Her storyline was interesting and there was some interesting politicking going on, but much of her story arc deals with her need to marry to be able to rule country. While in the end, Ford sets this stereotype on its ear and in a rather splendid way, there were some elements to Janessa’s actions, mostly those to do with her secret love that annoyed me. She only seemed spurred to action because of this man’s actions and I thought she showed more potential than that. A far stronger female character, besides Kaira, was Waylian’s mentor was Gelredida. She is a powerful mage, who treats herself as an equal to the men around her and doesn’t let them dismiss her out of hand for being a woman. Overall, there were some lovely secondary characters in the book and Ford manages to give most of them – with the exception of the many thugs and henchmen our characters encounter, because how much personality does it take to read goon – a distinct personality.

Despite being a true epic fantasy, there are several different flavours to the plot. There’s a murder mystery, a heist, a budding partnership between a swindler and a Temple Shieldmaiden, which at times resembles a buddy comedy, all mixed in with your regular political intrigue and warfare sporting epic fantasy. Ford’s world-building has improved. It’s far more even and while similar to Kultus the narrative is largely confined to one city, we do get a bigger picture of the world beyond. Setting my issues with pacing and some of the characters aside, I really enjoyed Herald of the Storm. With only a hundred pages to go, I had to force myself to put the book down because I’d have wanted to finish it otherwise and I really needed to get some sleep. The book is a somewhat slow starter, but it burns brightly once it’s out of the gate. Ford has created a really solid first epic fantasy novel and I’m looking forward to reuniting with our protagonists to see where Ford takes them next. If you’re looking for some big epic fantasy to lose yourself in over the summer, Herald of the Storm is a good place to start.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.