Lord of a Shattered Land
Written by Howard Andrew Jones
Published by Baen
August 1, 2023
Hardcover, 615 pages
Over and over in conversations I’ve had with authors, it becomes clear that world-building can be a challenge, especially when you get into realms of science fiction and fantasy where you have to make practically everything from scratch. And while it may look easy from the outside, it’s generally not. And for epic fantasy, I think that holds doubly true because you not only have to keep track of the characters and settings, but also the rules for the supernatural elements.
Howard Andrew Jones does a yeoman’s job of keeping things straight as he takes us on the first leg of General Hanuvar Cabera’s quest to free his people, the last remaining survivors of a war that destroyed his home of Volanus at the hands of the Dervan Empire. As written down for posterity by his traveling companion, Antires (a sword-and-sandals answer to S. Morgenstern, perhaps?), the story follows Hanuvar through various adventures as he makes his way across the continent to rescue the remaining Volani and take them to a remote island sanctuary. From the beginning encounter with the winged serpent asalda, Jones delivers a tale that builds piece by piece to show us both the legendary warrior Hanuvar and the man behind the myths. Older, seasoned, war-weary, and he has but one goal: to save his people. Which runs counter to everyone’s expectations once they start hearing the rumors that the great general is still alive. They all think he’s after revenge, but he just wants to find his daughter and free his people.
That’s a common element that drives most of the characters in this tome: each of them wants something (which is a distillation of “story” that I came to realize quite some time ago myself). Even more basic than “Man vs Man” that we learn in literature classes, drama is driven by a conflict of needs and desires. Hanuvar, the great soldier tired of war, has only one goal, and everything he does, every action, every plan, is built around that one goal. Same with Antires; he wants to chronicle Hanuvar’s quest, and as part of that arrangement he learns more about himself, that he’s more than just an actor and playwright.
Even Hanuvar’s various enemies are driven by desires: power, greed, the need to make sure absolutely once and for all that Hanuvar is dead…. All of these things play out in a story that flows from one side quest to the next, all the while building to the end of this first part (the first of five, I understand).
I found myself more than once thinking that Hanuvar is almost an “intellectual Conan” because of his strategist way of thinking, and the structure of the book is reminiscent of some of the Robert E. Howard collections of short stories featuring Conan. It’s almost episodic, although done in a way that moves us from one encounter to the next following Hanuvar’s progress from the island of Narata all the way across the continent up to the Ardenine Mountains (and yes, there’s a map, because epic fantasy tales must include a map).
It was easy for me to picture Gerard Butler and Stephen Lobo as Hanuvar and Antires, respectively (or Clive Owen and Danny Pudi, maybe) while I was reading this — and that’s not something I normally am quick to do, but Jones spins out a yarn in a way that’s easy to picture in the mind. I even saw the elephant pretty clearly. There are a few elements deliberately left vague that I would have liked to have more descriptive text — Chapter Ten comes readily to mind — but it didn’t distract from the flow of the story enough to be a hang-up.
While Hanuvar and Conan might be cut from the same cloth, the similarities are broad. The general is his own character, not a copycat. He’s a thinker, and while he may share some of the same loner characteristics of Conan, it’s clear from the outset that Hanuvar is a very lonely man. At one point, he even says, “I too am a killer… I can recite poetry and the works of Aedara, frame witty quips, trade pleasantries with ladies of the court. But the Dervans fear me with reason.” He’s isolated in his survival and dedication to purpose to the point where having the comfort of friends is a luxury he doesn’t even hope to have throughout most of the book. Antires serves not only as a narrative character, but he also grows into the role of sidekick and eventually a “buddy cop” type.
No character is wasted, and every scene moves us with Hanuvar to his ultimate destination. And while we haven’t arrived there yet (book two is out this October), so far it’s been a fun ride, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.