Thursday, 21 March 2013

Herald of the Storm by Richard Ford





During times of crisis, you don’t get to choose your heroes.

Herald of the Storm is the first book in Richard Ford’s new trilogy: Steelhaven. Set in the city of the same name, Herald of the Storm focuses on a group of characters who live in the city – some from the ruling classes, some that work at the outer shades of society and some that live on the streets. At the heart of the story is Janessa, daughter to King Cael the Uniter who, as the story opens, is out fighting a war and holding off a host of barbaric hordes. Janessa is left to deal with minor matters of state, leaving most of the bigger issues to her father’s counsellors. But as the book opens, a foreigner makes his way into Steelhaven, spreading tidings and prophecies, brokering deals and agreements from within the city’s criminal underworld. He is the voice of the Elharim warlord, Amon Tugha – the voice of doom and bloody war; the Herald of the Storm.

In Herald of the Storm we follow the lives of seven main POV characters, interlinking their stories in major and minor ways as the book progresses. Through a series of different sub-plots, each character is always only a few connections away from any of the others at any given time. They cross paths in ways that are at times hilarious, shocking and vital to the development of each of their separate sub-plots. Ford’s characters are all in some way cut from the same cloth as other major POV characters we’ve seen in epic fantasy in the last decade or so. There is the grumpy teenage princess, the confused assassin, the loveable swindler and lots more. But this is absolutely deliberate on the part of Ford. It is the interactions between these characters that he excels at. He’s taken some familiar character types and thrown them all into one big playground together – and sparks most certainly fly. Each one feels well developed and their personalities are unwavering. They all have a fundamental system at their cores which Ford never compromises, meaning the characters are always what drives the story.

At the centre of the novel sits the city of Steelhaven. In this, Ford has taken elements of other great fantasy cities and created his own teeming hive of life and death. There’s nothing particularly original about Steelhaven itself, but as the entire novel is set in its depths, Ford has managed to breathe life into something which could have become tiresome quickly. Each of the characters are connected to Steelhaven in ways that go deeper than simply living there. By setting the entirety of the book in one city, Ford manages to tie the reader to its fate. We constantly hear of problems that Steelhaven could face with the war and through the characters we see why this is so important to the people of Steelhaven at every class level. It’s an interesting way of setting an epic fantasy because normally we’re introduced to multiple locales – but in Herald of the Storm, we’re left in just one city. It allows Ford to establish the importance of Steelhaven before presumably showing us some more of his world in the next book.

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Herald of the Storm was its lack of a cohesive central plot. I’ve mentioned previously that the novel is made up of an interconnecting series of sub-plots, but there isn’t really anything which ties them together. Instead it often feels like a series of vignettes that only have the city of Steelhaven itself in common. The main “plot” of the series seems to be that of the war between the hordes of Amon Tugha and the Free States, but in Herald of the Storm this all takes place “off-screen”. Part of me thinks this may have been deliberate on the part of Ford – it’s a little like the main plot is always going on “over there” and his novel is instead showing us what happens on the sidelines of epic fantasy. It’s also evident by the end that the next book will explore more of the world outside Steelhaven, so hopefully the main series’ plot comes into clearer focus.

Herald of the Storm takes the fundamental parts of gritty, epic fantasy and puts the focus on character first. It’s filled with big personalities that each have their own stake in keeping the city of Steelhaven safe from the constant threat of war. The lack of any cohesive plot throughout the novel may be an issue for some, but this is the story of one city in a vast fantasy world. It’s testament to Ford’s world building skills that although we never leave the city of Steelhaven, we do get the sense that outside its walls is a whole world, just ready for exploring. If you love the works of Joe Abercrombie or even George R.R. Martin you will probably find something to enjoy in Steelhaven – it’s violent, vicious and darkly funny. Book Two can’t come fast enough - bring it on.

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