Author: William Ray
Publisher: Self Published
Publication Date: December 2014
(I was given a copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Black powder weapons, railroads, steamships, spear chucking goblins, zombies, vampire lords, lightning giants and magic.
That was a list, not a sentence, but did it get your attention?
In Gedlund, William Ray takes blackpowder fantasy and merges it with sword and sorcery. What he produced is a war story set in a fantasy world that seems almost real. You know, except for the goblins and vampires and whatnot. So let’s get to it…
“Thanks to rifle and iron rail, humanity now flourishes after centuries of submission. With the oppressive power of the Elves ended at last, human nations have grown mighty, and the Verin Empire’s colonies spread civilization to the farthest corners of the world. But civilization has not taken root everywhere…
To the north sits Thyesten, ancient Lich King of Gedlund. He banished death, and for countless centuries he has ruled a land where ghosts, vampires, and other wicked undead keep mortal men in feudal servitude. Now, without the Elves to keep that monstrous realm in check, the Verin Empire must pit men and cannons against Gedlund’s legions of the dead, it’s ruthless Everlords, and terrifying ancient magics.
Tammen Gilmot, a young soldier defending the Empire’s colonial frontier, finds himself swept into this reckless new campaign. Disowned by his family, yet ill-fitted among his new comrades, he must learn to lead them in order to survive the coming war.”
As I write more of these reviews I hesitate more and more to say much about the plot for fear of giving away too much. The cover blurb above does a pretty good job of summarizing the story…enough to get you introduced to it at least.
Ray’s writing style is pretty straight-forward. This is a war story and it’s written like one. There’s not a lot of flourish or fancy words – it’s to the point. But it isn’t dry by any means. Like any good war story you’ll feel immersed in the battle scenes and come to care for the characters.
Ray has a knack for describing life in a 19th century army and translating that into a fantasy setting. I’ll say more about this in the World Building section below, but as a former U.S. Civil War Re-enactor so much of his imagery and descriptions made me sit up and say “yes!” But it is evident in the descriptions of life on campaign and especially the battle scenes that Ray did his homework. The writing fits the subject, stays out of the story’s way, and thrusts you into the scenes.
The narrative is told in the third person, mostly from the perspective of the protagonist Tam (Tammen Gilmot). About half-way or maybe two-thirds of the way through we also get to see it through the perspective of another character, Sergeant Gus. This shift is for narrative reasons, but is pretty unexpected giving how long the story went from the one perspective.
Each chapter also has a short little preface. At face value these serve to hint about something coming in the text, but there’s more to them than that. At first you aren’t sure who is speaking in these prefaces or how exactly they all connect but as the story nears its end it they all come together and manage to explain and convey even more of the story.
I thought the pacing was well done. It starts off with a bang (pun intended) by jumping almost immediately into a battle scene. The initial chapters speed along and set a solid tone. But keep in mind the book is over 600 pages. As with any book of that lenght you’re gonna have a long middle. It’s almost impossible not to. The question is what do you do with it?
Ray fills that long middle with world building and character development. We get to see the broader world and culture in which the characters live, get a bit of history, and through it all get an attachment to not just the protagonist but the secondary characters as well. Ray uses these pages wisely so that as the climax nears you’re invested. You’re invested in the characters obviously, but you also become invested in the army of which they are a part, the land they are from, and the country they are invading. I felt Ray did a great job with this.
The pacing picks up steam again at the end as the battle scenes come one after the other. The climax doesn’t let you down and it ends with you wanting more.
As I’ve noted above the protagonist is Tammen Gilmot. Tam begins the story as a private and we follow him through one campaign into another as his career progresses. Tam is actually of low aristocratic birth (very low) but is disowned by his family for entering the military as a way to see the world and for adventure and not pursuing the path set forth and allowed by his birth and education. Not having the money to buy an officer’s commission Tam enters the military as a private and must navigate his new life circumstance amidst the ongoing imperial wars of his country.
Other main characters include the sword wielding Captain Val Hoskaaner (something of a mystery himself), Sergeants Claude and Gus, and Corporal Glynn, all officers or NCO’s of the regiment Tam is assigned to. There are other characters both military and civilian, but this is primarily a war story set amidst an army on campaign, thus the civilians are limited in number. And though it could include lots of military characters Ray’s decision to focus primarily on this small group adds to the intimacy of the reading experience, much like other fantasy novels do by following a small adventuring party.
I loved Ray’s world-building. He accomplishes it on a couple of different levels. At the macro level is the world itself. We really only come to know it as the book progresses and shifts from one campaign to the next. The book begins amidst life on campaign in a far flung colony of the Verin Empire, shifts from that campaign to an interlude in the home country itself, then shifts to the next campaign as the characters travel to another conquered land and then invade a foreign neighbor across a small sea. As locations shift more of the world is explored, its history shared, and peoples and cultures encountered. Yet by the time the novel comes to a close we realize we’ve only experienced a small portion of what this world has to offer us. Really it’s a small portion of the world as seen through the lens of one Empire with hints of more to come. Its a world with technology such as black powder weaponry, trains, and steamships, coupled with the fantastical like Elves (or they’re memory), goblins, zombies and vampires, and giants
At the micro-level is the army. Here is where the book shined for me on a personal level. I used to be a U.S. Civil War Re-enactor (48th Ohio) and there were so many details in the book that harkened back to experiences I had re-enacting. From the feel of the wool uniforms on skin, to the heat of gun barrels (and wrapping leather around them to keep your hands from burning), to the smoke and “fog of war” where you can’t tell what’s going on except in your immediate surroundings, the sound of cannons and rifles, and even tactics and camp life. The list goes on. I could tell Ray did some research here and it pays off in some of these little details. There’s also the obvious research into the structure and culture of 18th and 19th century European militaries (like buying of commissions for one). All of this adds to the realism of the novel which for me is important in fantasy where I still want something to be grounded in a reality I can point to and experience that connects me with the story. The Verin empire reminds be a lot of Queen Victoria’s British Empire. The opening campaign specifically made me think of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift a la the movie Zulu.
Throughout it all is the blending of this black powder fantasy with the creatures and monsters of the typical fantasy world. Ray introduces us first to the goblin tribes of Rakhasin. These are warriors armed with spears alongside magic wielding shamans, fighting against rifle and canon of the Verin Empire. Lingering in the background is the memory of the Elves who disappeared after the last war without a trace, leaving behind the ruins of their once mighty nation. The last country to figure prominently in the story is Gedlund, a land ruled by the undead vampire lords whose people are held in serf-like servitude and live in a medieval culture compared to the industrialized Verins. The vampires though we don’t get to know them in-depth are really well written and are pretty badass. One of my favorite creatures is the lightning giant, who is almost impossible to kill and with every step causes lightning to strike. Imagine him charging your battle line!
A Note On History
Like any good fantasy story there’s a history to this world. That history is explained in part, but unlike much high fantasy where the entire history of the world has built to some potentially world destroying moment, in Gedlund we are set smack in the world’s present where we understand that there is a long tale to come after. As Ray alludes to in the afterword to the book it is the present that matters more than the past in Gedlund. The story is about what happens in the world’s here and now, or at least recent past.
In Gedlund we don’t get Epic fantasy with the farmboy going to save the world from annihilation from some evil God. And frankly I’m thankful for that. I’m a little tired of that story. This is a world where this tale is just a part of a larger whole. It’s a world with more history to be made and stories to be told.
Gedlund is also more than just a war story. Don’t get me wrong, it is a war story, but it’s more than just a bunch of battles strung together. Ray also hits upon themes and issues with parallels in our own world. Throughout the book the characters struggle with the norms and barriers of social mobility and equality, gender equality (even if you don’t realize it at first), economic disparity, industrialization, and imperialism just to name a handful. And hanging over everything are questions about why nations go to war and why their soldiers fight, which at times may not be for the same reasons. Gedlund, though fantasy fiction, reflects much of the West’s imperialistic and nationalistic past (and present), while not shying away from questioning whether it is right or wrong, not just within the story itself but within our own history as well. Gedlund is also a tale set at the boundaries of empire though it purports to be a story about the empire. It brings to light the notion that much can be said about a country and people based upon events that happen at its periphery.
I loved this book. From start to finish I was caught up in the conflict that had swept up its characters. I cheered for them, got angry with them, and felt sorrow for them. I wanted to rail against the leaders who sent them to war, and wanted to defend the people they were sent to liberate. I wanted them to break barriers and tear down walls, but mostly I wanted them to come home in once piece. I also just like well written war stories and this one fits the bill. Ray has made a new fan and I can’t wait to read the next book in this world, The Great Restoration: A Tale Of The Verin Empire.