Mannethorn’s Key Review

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Author: Simon Lindley
Publisher: Self-Published
Publication Date: January 8, 2018
Format: Paperback
Pages: 364

“Algarth Willowbrow is about to gamble everything. His once-powerful Order is in ruins, and he faces an unwinnable battle to save his life and his people. In a last, desperate attempt, he lures his arch nemesis deep within his keep, hoping to utilize him and reclaim a long-hidden magic, powerful enough to save the world – or destroy it.

Bartholomew Waxman, former derivatives broker extraordinaire has gambled everything – and lost. Bankrupt, unemployed and divorced, his only hope for salvation is to try and rebuild his self-inflicted shattered life. But at his first job interview, he is grabbed by a spell and thrust into the netherworld of Between. There, he is groomed to wield a power so vast that it will decide a world’s fate.

The land’s only hope is the reluctant and unprepared Bartholomew, the wizard Algarth whose powers are gravely in doubt – and the Key of Life, with its true power hidden from all.”

— Blurb from book cover

Mannethorn’s Key is the self-published debut novel by Simon Lindley, and book one in his Key of Life trilogy. I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve written a longer review than I originally intended because well I seem to do that a lot, and I want to give Lindley as a self-published author more than just a quick splash of my thoughts on the screen. My apologies in advance…

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book at the outset and I’m still processing my thoughts and feelings about it. The world-building in particular drew me in with a linked Earth to another fantasy setting. The main characters were flawed and had their own inner demons to contend with apart from the one’s external to them. The plot continued to deepen as I read and surprised me with how much of the narrative was yet to be explored by story’s end. At the same time I struggled with the pacing and attachment to the characters.

So let me just dive in with what I liked…

World-Building
Lindley has created a complex and intriguing universe where our world is connected to the world of Drageverden, a world once controlled by dragons who were overthrown by the races they once ruled. In centuries past people could move between both words via magical gates. The world of Drageverden is made up of more than just humans however and is filled with giants, dwarves, elves, trolls, and other fantastical beings. Vancouver, Canada is the primary setting for the Earthly side of things. Connecting these two worlds (at least for Bartholomew) is a place called Between, a magical purgatory like realm that must be traversed before crossing into Drageverden. The story shifts between these three realms throughout the book as the character’s stories slowly come together. I personally like stories that draw upon the idea of linking our world with another. It gives the story something familiar to connect with yet foreign to let your imagination run wild.

Lindley incorporates a mixture of First Nations (as the Earthly aspect of the story is set in Canada) and elements of what seems to be a slight Norse background to the narrative. Much of the language draws upon these two cultures in the use of terminology as well as the use of runes as a written form. Lindley blends Native American myth and folklore drawing on elements from multiple nations to form the basis for a shared experience.  I don’t have a strong background in either Native American or Norse cultures so it’s hard to say what is done well or not but I enjoyed the focus on cultures outside of the traditional anglo-franco-western European feel to a lot of fantasy.

Magic in Drageverden is based on a dual system with the wild Han magic balanced by the more benign Zhin magic. Those with magical ability wield one or the other of the two. The dual nature of the magic system and its effects on those who wield it add a definite tension to the narrative, especially as the boundaries that separate the two and hold them in check begin to weaken.

Soon after the overthrow of the dragons (who are still around) a Han wielding human wizard called Grailborn rose up to take control of Drageverden. He was opposed by the those of the Zhin school. After a desperate struggle Grailborn was held in check but at great cost. In order to stop him Zhin mages established magical borders coinciding with the realms of the world to prevent Grailborn and his minions from crossing into new lands. Each realm is populated by a different race of people such as humans, giants, or dwarves. The larger consequence of this action was that the peoples of those lands were also locked within their boundaries. For four centuries this has been the status quo and there has been no contact between the races and nations of the world, yet they share a remembered history. At the outset of the story those boundaries are failing and movement between people’s and lands is possible once again. While opportunities exist to rekindle past relationships between people’s this new dynamic also offers the potential for conflict after going so long without interacting with one another. Differences in customs and traditions between cultures add another level of tension to the story.

Adding complexity to the world-building, Lindley incorporates unfamiliar terminology and vocabulary without always explicitly explaining it within the narrative. To help with this a six page glossary has been added to the end of the book. So for instance, dragons are called Uktena, Shaptna is the combination of Han and Zhin magic, the Damati are the various races of the world (each with their own designations like Tu-Damati for Lakeborn and Fhun-Damati for giants). At times this slowed down the reading flow and I was forced to look up a term in the glossary to better understand the context. At first it was a minor annoyance but I found the more I read the less it bothered me and by about half-way through my need to skip to the glossary greatly diminished. I know other readers however are turned off by this kind of textual device. Much of the glossary is also devoted to names of people and places so that it’s easier to remember who or what is being discussed.

All of the above provides a solid foundation in terms of world-building that I genuinely liked. It is complex and book one in this series only seems to scratch the surface of what potentially may come.

Characters
The two protagonists of the story are Algarth and Bartholomew or Bart for short. Both of these characters are flawed and continually struggle with their own internal failings while having to contend with outside forces opposed to them. Algarth, the sole remaining Zhin mage is all that stands against a resurgent Grailborn and the destruction of his world. In order to defeat Grailborn he turns to a lost form of magic and a long lost magical artifact. The repercussions of doing so are more than he bargained for and the effect they have on him make Algarth into a very questionable hero.

Bart must also struggle, but he must contend with his background. Having failed in his career and marriage he begins the story as a near penniless drunk; someone who is on the verge of giving up entirely. When yanked from his world into a strange in-between existence where he learns of his true life-path and is forced to face who he was and is he must decide how to move forward while at the same time come to grips with a shocking and unbelievable new reality!

I really like flawed characters because of the tension they provide the narrative. Neither Algarth or Bart are your typical heroes and quite often they are their own worst enemy. And though both evolve over the course of the book, by the end of the story both are still deeply flawed and questionable, and it’s uncertain how either might prove themselves as a savior for Drageverden.

Now for what I struggled with…

Plot and Pacing
First, let me say I liked the overall plot: two worlds mysteriously connected, one on the verge of destruction; a powerful mage struggling almost alone against a historical foe bent on conquering the world; an unlikely outworlder hero yanked from his own world and thrust into another who may bear the key to its salvation; and a world where peoples and cultures separated for centuries must now reacquaint themselves with one another in time to stand against the onslaught to come. That makes for a story that could suck me in.

But the pacing of the narrative felt uneven and kept holding it back. It wasn’t until about half-way through that I felt really invested in the story and even then the pacing was off to me. It got better the further I read, but at first I wasn’t really sure where things were going. While the events surrounding Algarth moved forward at good clip Bart’s storyline was bogged down. I felt too much time was spent getting him from one world to the other such that his impact on the story was minimized. While alternating between the two primary story lines was effective as a means in driving the narrative forward Bart’s arc didn’t seem to go far until near the very end and to me at least much of his potential impact was lost.

It was the long middle where I think the book suffers the most from pacing. The beginning and end however were better done, especially the way the story closed.

Character Attachment
I really didn’t find myself very attached to the two main characters for most of the story, which is odd considering how much I like their flawed characterization. It’s hard to explain why. I just felt there was something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until almost the very end of the book that I started to get a feeling of attachment to either of them. And I should note, by the end they HAD grown on me — Algarth in particular with his questionable place as a hero, but the time it took to get there was a negative for me.

Interestingly some of the minor characters and their arcs brought forth a stronger reaction in me than Algarth and Bart did at times. This is especially true for Ghurfhrumbuhrgum (Claydeep) and his giant-kin whose peaceful and nurturing ways clashed with those of their human neighbors. There was a pathos to Claydeep and his people that grabbed me even though they were more secondary to the story. Another character who gets very minimal page time but who I wanted to see more of was Varea, a Guard lieutenant bent on justice (or revenge depending on how you look at it). Her arc barely started its trajectory but adds a definite tension and future conflict as the series progresses. But the fact I at times felt more attached to some of the minor characters again points to that feeling something was missing in my connection with Algarth and Bart.

In Conclusion
The narrative pacing and attachment to the two main characters are where the book suffered the most for me. However I still liked it which is interesting because I wasn’t sure I was going to at first. The world-building established a good foundation, the flawed characters made me believe in them even if I didn’t feel for them (odd I know don’t @ me) and the overall plot kept me wanting to turn another page. It just took a while to grow on me. And the story’s ending did a lot to hook me for book two which I definitely want to read.

So while Mannethorn’s Key falls into the category where I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, it definitely falls toward the “I liked it” side of that spectrum where there were just a few key things that kept it from getting to that next category. I look forward to Lindley’s next offering in the series.

3.3 of 5 Stars

2 thoughts on “Mannethorn’s Key Review

  1. Pingback: 2019 Reading And Blogging Goals VI: Read More Self-Pub Books | Off The TBR

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