The Last Guardians – The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford

ShatteredHerald of the Storm was a one of the most pleasant surprises of 2013. I had few expectations but after a slightly over-long build up, it blossomed into a thrilling heroic fantasy with some of the finest characters I’ve encountered in fantasy fiction. I’m not sure I realised at the time of reading how much I had enjoyed it. When The Shattered Crown dropped through the letterbox, I was inordinately excited to find out what would happen next. I’m pleased to report that Ford has used the solid foundations of book one to support a phenomenal second instalment.

I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I don’t think I’ve found a fantasy book this exciting since discovering David Gemmell 25 years ago. Fantasy has evolved a lot since then and I think with The Shattered Crown, Ford probably eclipses Gemmell. Modern writers have to deliver a more rounded product. I used to joke that Gemmell books were all about ageing warriors, heavily outnumbered, making one last stand against the odds. (Actually this isn’t really a joke, that’s what they were about.)

Ford’s novel has an element of that. A dire force is descending on Steelhaven, and there is a veteran warrior waiting to come out of retirement to fight for the city, but there is so much more. As I said in my review of Herald, the key is in the characterisation. Gemmell’s were as two dimensional as they come. They swung swords and cussed a lot. Ford’s have greater depth. He’s created epic heroes with credible fragility.

The fate of Steelhaven is focused mainly around its new queen and her two new bodyguards. All three of these characters appeared in Herald, and they are a strong triumvirate. Merrick Ryder, a womanising squanderer has found the chance for redemption, but will he take it? The arrival of some new elite knights and a shadow from Merrick’s past threaten to push him over the edge. His internal struggles will decide whether a kingdom stands or falls.  The two women form a bond; The taciturn warrior and the queen whose every decision is scrutinised. Should she marry for the money that is desperately needed to pay her armies, or wait for her doomed lover to return?

Other characters from Herald prove vital too.  Waylian continues his apprenticeship as Ford’s magic system starts to take some shape. His mistress has seen and done things that turn the stomach, but she has Steelhaven’s interests at heart, doesn’t she? Ford leaves the reader guessing as to just what Waylian’s true potential may be and whether he’s right to implicitly trust his mentor.

Nobul Jacks, former soldier, blacksmith and now a policeman is a character that is pure Gemmell. It was the death of Nobul’s son that opened Hearld of the Storm, and he is driven by demons and wanted by powerful men. It’s a potent combination that leads him down dark pathways.

Finally there is Rag. I must confess to not being entirely convinced by her at first. Her flip-flopping between ruthless Guild member and street kid with a heart of gold, felt a bit convenient, but by the end of Shattered Crown I was converted. She’s a girl with nothing, and few prospects more likely than a knife in the back. Rag is an appropriate name as she is tossed on the capricious winds of treachery that blow through the criminal underworld. She is a chameleon, a survivor and the final piece of Steelhaven’s puzzle.

The novel’s strongest asset is its sense of impending doom. A dire army is descending on the city, and all plans and manoeuvres must be completed by the time it arrives. This gives the novel a great sense of urgency, far stronger than if the army had actually arrived. The unseen foe is far more menacing in the reader’s imagination. The sense of fighting a hopeless cause is The Shattered Crown’s strongest similarity with a David Gemmell novel.

The plotting in this book is much tighter than in the first and as a result it is a much slimmer tome. At under 400 pages The Shattered Crown is slight for a fantasy novel, but Ford achieves as much as many authors do with twice this length. Not a word is wasted. This an excellent book with excitement and intrigue in every chapter. There is still little resolution by the end and lots of threads are left untied. When I started reading Gemmell all those years ago, he’d already written half a dozen novels, so I had plenty devour. It’s a little early to be calling Ford the heir to David Gemmell, but I hope he hurries up with volume three so that I can continue the comparison. This is a fine follow up, from an exciting talent.

Many Thanks to Caitlin at Headline for sending me a copy of this book. 

 

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