The Sword Defiant by Gareth Hanrahan is Trope-Defying Fantasy | Book Review

Necrod is a place of nightmares vanquished and persevering. This city, covered by the “eternal greenish gloom” of its necromiasma, makes for the central locale in Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant, an ambitious and trope-defying fantasy novel that will appeal to fans of Tolkien, role-playing gamers, and fantasy enthusiasts well outside those two groups. If there is any place of origin for this city of wonders and terrors, it is to be drawn from the following Tolkien line: “…and Barad-Dur would not have been destroyed but occupied…” (as cited from the author’s Acknowledgments). The project of this gorgeous novel is to question what follows after the Dark Lord’s defeat. What awaits the heroes once they stand triumphant? What challenges? What new battles? With all the spoils of victory, so too comes the risk of corruption–and as the world moves on from the clear demarcation lines between good and evil, what happens to those who still see the world in those terms?

One such individual is the primary point of view character, Aelfric. Alf is the old-school protagonist of a sword’n’sorcery novel, a man whose moral compass only points one of two directions: good or evil. This served him and his fellow companions, the Nine, well when they were fighting to rid the world of its Dark Lord, the mighty necromancer Bone. ( It has continued to serve Aelfric well in his time since. He’s spent much of the last fifteen years in the dungeons below Necrod, fighting side by side with another of the Nine, the shapeshifting Changeling Loth, against prowling nightmares and monstrosities, making sure they never have the opportunity to cause ruin to the surface world:

Down there, he’d killed things that shouldn’t exist, war-beasts grown in the alchemical vats of Lord Bone, necromantic horrors held together by sorcery and hate. Monsters that deserved death — and he’d fought them fairly, sword against claw, against spell, against tooth-filled maw and grasping tentacle…

Above him, meanwhile, Necrod and the other members of the Nine have both changed. Gareth Hanrahan has a special touch when it comes to fantasy cityscapes. Guerdon, in his Black Iron Legacy is similarly a place of nightmare and iniquity, but also great opportunity; with Necrod, there’s the essence of Barad-Dur in so many ways, also a touch of Post-WWII Berlin, isn’t there, with several different zones of influence or occupation, each held by the four great powers that took the city–the Lords of Summerfell, the dwarves of Dwarfholt, the Wood Elves who serve the Erlking, and the Nine themselves. There is also the Liberties, a zone carved out for the former prisoners of war, Necrod’s original inhabitants – witch elves, ogres, alchemically fabricated creatures known as Vatlings.

The Nine is not a name without association, and I don’t believe for a moment that an author so intimately familiar with Tolkien, so involved with and inspired by the world of Middle-Earth, would have named the band to which his main character belongs without intent. Tolkien’s nine were lords of Men, once the greatest and mightiest of their race, now corrupt. Hanrahan’s story of heroes on the moral decline certainly recalls the possibility; as Aelfric reconnects with his fellow members of the Nine, I stood alert, scrutinizing their every behaviour, and especially doubtful of every instance in which Alf would think something like “It all made sense. He could trust his old companions” (120). The dwarf Gundan, the first of the Nine Alf ever befriended, is impossible not to like; yet his bloodthirst, the gleeful slaughter he unleashes on the Liberties, and his authoritarian touch with the non-Nine members of Necrod’s ruling council portray someone a lot more morally gray than you might think. You can tell much about Gundan by this exchange with Necrod’s official ruler, Lord Vond:

“You’re not above the law,” [Vond said.]

“Yes, we are. We make the law. There wouldn’t be any law here if we hadn’t killed Lord Bone. We slew one ruler of this city, and he was a lot scarier than you.” (153)

Others in the Nine have similar idiosyncrasies. Alf loves and trusts them all, and tries his hardest to bring them under a common goal, punctuated by prophecy of dark times ahead. The task is harder than it should be. Alf is a little like a tree bent by the wind in numerous directions, leaning whichever way the latest member of the Nine bends him towards. And, as reader, you’re in the same position – every one of his friends, from Loth to the wizard Blaise and thief Berys, from the dwarf Gundan to the elven princess Laerlyn and even the Wilder barbarian Thurn, every one of them brings up points that sound both valid and morally just. Alf finds himself in an impossible situation, his perspective skewed and the moral certainty he hopes for impossible to pinpoint. Worst yet, the discord he finds among the Nine is something he feels responsible about–almost as if, by throwing himself into the fight with countless monstrous hordes below Necrod, he turned too blind an eye on the goings on in the world. The Nine, you see, lost their leader in their moment of triumph. The paladin Peir sacrificed himself to stop Bone and ever since, Alf has felt that he could never fill those shoes. Whether they are for him to fill or not is beyond the point, really–it’s a source of guilt and perceived failure that haunts our protagonist. Some of the others in the Nine, meanwhile, operate by a logic that can be best summarised with the following words uttered by Berys:

“We saved the world, and that means we get a say in how it’s run.” (236)

I would do a disservice to the secondary point-of-view character in this novel if I didn’t mention her sections. Olva is the sister to Aelfric, whom he has not seen in over twenty years. Her quest is that of a parent trying to be reunited with her son–a young boy, Derwyn, whose wanderlust pushes him towards running away from home as soon as Olva tells him who his uncle is. On her quest to find and save her son from some unsavoury folks, Olva meets a mercenary, a dwarf, an elf–only, at the end of this journey awaits not a punchline but a gut-wrenching twist.

I can’t speak of The Sword Defiant without touching on the weapon Aelfric wields. The sentient sword Spellbreaker is a personable weapon if there ever was one. His is not a *nice* personality, mind, but nice is boring; I much prefer evil and devious in my own sentient weaponry*. Spellbreaker is not much fond of Alf and seeks to betray him at every turn he can, early on–Aelfric, meanwhile, “dislikes the sword’s unpleasant company, its combination of malign utility and lurking treachery” (92). Yet I genuinely teared up further into the narrative, seeing wielder and weapon develop a grudging respect and something perhaps even deeper than that.

Thea Dumitru stands behind the gorgeous illustration on The Sword Defiant‘s cover of Alf as he holds onto Spellbreaker. Few other publishers can compare with Orbit’s covers – I read Justice of Kings the same week as I did this novel, and the covers of both are the best kind of fantasy art you can hope for in a cover. Huge props to the team at Orbit for that!

One element I regret to bring to your attention is the amount of errors throughout the novel. It’s a bummer there are as many typos here as I came across and I’m surprised the proofreading folks at Orbit failed to catch as many as they have. Even the blurb seems to have something of an error to it: “Many years ago, Sir Aelfric and his **nine** companions saved the world” – but that’s not quite right, is it? Alf is part of the Nine, but this description would make for ten heroes. It’s entirely possible I’m overlooking something, but I don’t think I am. (Correction: author Gareth Hanrahan clarified on twitter that the blurb refers to the eight others in the Nine plus the sword Spellbreaker itself).

These errors are a small blemish on what has otherwise been a genuine highlight of my year as a reader. Not only that; The Sword Defiant is an inspiration, showing as it does how the most well-known tropes in fantasy can be turned on their head and made fresh again. No trope is ever truly tired – not in the capable hands of authors whose vision shines new light for all us writers. I’m in half a mind to write an essay about Hanrahan’s treatment of elves and how that ties into the larger history of the portrayal of this species since Tolkien to this day.

This is a genuinely fantastic read, one I hope you will get to experience for yourself very, very soon. You’ll enjoy this book if you:

  • Grew up on the Lord of the Rings or novels like the Dragonlance Chronicles and now need something super-charged and more morally complex;
  • Love cursed swords, gore, grisly betrayals and genuinely tragic character-driven moments;
  • I mean, come on, it’s a fantastic premise for a fantasy novel, you should be reading it already;
  • And more! Prob’ly.

I have a deep-rooted love for Hanrahan’s fiction. This is the fourth novel of his I’ve read, and serves as a great jumping-on point for his work; he’s also a talented ttRPG writer and I can’t wait to see his work on the Second edition of The One Ring. That said, when his main character has a nickname such as Alf, I couldn’t help but think about this:

Thanks for reading! Have you read any of Hanrahan’s works so far? What do you love about them most?

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