Consider the stereotypical ending of a fantasy novel. The heroes have prevailed against a tide of darkness, the evil has been purged from the land and all rejoice as peace is restored. But what happens next? Who rules over the defeated kingdom? What will the mighty heroes do with no one left to fight? Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant suggests that, once the war is over, the heroes will fight one another.
Years ago, Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, banding together to defeat Lord Bone and conquer his dread city of Necrad. Now the heroes are the rulers of Necrad, even though, truth be told, none of them really volunteered for the job. It’s just what was needed to keep the peace. In addition to this, Aelfric was tasked with carrying Spellbreaker, Lord Bone’s enchanted, sentient broadsword. Though the sword bestows incredible magical power to the wielder, it thinks for itself and constantly yearns for bloodshed. When Aelfric and Spellbreaker discover that Lord Bone’s tomb has been opened, Aelfric suspects that one of his eight remaining companions broke in and stole the body. But who? And why?
Hanrahan does a great job constructing Aelfric’s backstory and developing nostalgia for his once-simple life. Aelfric and his companions’ shared history is sprinkled throughout, and the cracks within the group slowly become apparent. Aelfric is a soldier, a monster-slayer with no desire to rule, and he loves his companions even as he suspects some of them of heinous acts. It creates a wonderful sense of tension that is also tinged with sadness; Aelfric is painfully aware that the group is both getting older and growing distant from one another.
However poignant, this story could still come apart if the world building wasn’t up to snuff, but I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic. Hanrahan creates fully realized environments with rich histories, rendering the murky city of Necrad, towns and inns along the road and an elvish kingdom with precise detail. He also employs a second perspective, that of Aelfric’s sister, Olva, to show the reader other parts of the kingdom. Her mission—finding her wayward son, Derwyn—is engaging, but sometimes less so than Aelfric’s gripping quest.
A creative writing professor I once had said, “When you figure out how it ends, stay there,” urging us to push past what seemed like the expected conclusion and instead see what would happen if we let things continue to play out. I have a feeling Hanrahan would excel at such an exercise.