It's Book Review Wednesday! On this, my favorite day of the week, I'm featuring a historical fiction novel with a bit of a fantastical twist to it…
The Defenders of Blackspire Abbey
In the bloody height of the Dark Ages, when long ships carried Viking raiders across the waves and swords decided the fates of kingdoms, monasteries offer small pockets of civilization and learning - but Blackspire Abbey is no ordinary monastery. Located on a jagged chunk of rock off the English coast, Blackspire Abbey serves as a library for forbidden books of black magic and the occult, where heresy can be studied firsthand. Blackspire Abbey has a strange guardian -the Viking warrior known as Egil the Scarred. Egil was not born, but created by a mysterious witch who sewed the pieces of fallen Vikings into a patchwork man, and animated Egil with magic to create an unstoppable solider with war fused into his very bones. Now, Egil is trying to end his wandering and forge an new life for himself.
But danger is coming to Blackspire Abbey. Father Enrico Dori, a priest turned Satanist and author of a bloody, heretical rebellion, comes to Blackspire Abbey in chains so that he may be studied. Inquisitor Hox, a fanatic servant of God, seeks to cleanse Blackspire Abbey of heresy with Holy Fire. Viking raiders, including Egil’s former friend Ragnar Redye, seek to raid the abbey and steal its wealth. Egil’s only allies are Brother Cuthbert and Timothy Foundling, a wise monk and his apprentice, and Clare of Burgundy - a former nun turned outlaw queen sent to do penance in the abbey. They are the Defenders of Blackspire Abbey and they will stand against all foes and battle for the light of civilizations - and for their very lives.
My Review: 3 Stars
I REALLY wanted to like this book! After all, who doesn't love a "heroic last stand" type of novel, especially one about the Vikings? Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment.
In terms of the writing quality, the book had a lot of problems. Grammar and syntax was off, and adverbs were way over-used. It was plagued by passive constructions, improper sentences, and more nitty gritty problems that made my "perfectionist" mind struggle to keep reading.
I also found the story line a bit hard to swallow. Don't get me wrong: Viking Frankenstein taking on a demon-worshipping heretic--no problem! It was all the small character interactions, the way they talked to each other as if old friends, and the sequence of events that really threw me off. I like my fantasy to be as "realistic" as possible, and this lacked the realism that makes it possible for us fiction lovers to swallow a fantastical story.
The dialogue felt stunted and off, and characters spoke more like the narrator than like themselves. The action scenes were…lacking. As a man who loves a good fight scene, I was disappointed to say the least.
Where the writer excelled was at developing the character of Egil. The inner narrative was solid and gave a good look at the man--flaws, strengths, weaknesses, and all. The world in the book was fascinating and well-described. The characters (the fighting nun, the Jewish boy priest, and the curious jester fellow) were absolutely intriguing, but I felt the story didn't do them justice.
Great concept and interesting characters, but a "hit and miss" overall.
Here's a Taste:
The chanting of monks, rising and falling like ocean tides, woke Egil the Scarred from his uneasy sleep. His eyes flew open and he rammed his head further into the pillow of his cot. The chanting continued; Latin words blared in voices high and low. Outside the window, darkness still clung to the clouds. It was too early for such noise.
Egil rolled over and looked at the ceiling. His quarters were small and cozy, featuring only a few shelves, his cot, and a single wooden chair and table where his weapons and helmet rested.
Egil had been fatigued lately and slept through the chanting of the monks. Now, he had rested—or at least thought he had—and they awoke him. He wanted to return to sleep. Perhaps, if he struggled at it, he could. Then the hinges of his door squeaked.
A striped tabby shape, Tybern, the monastery cat at Blackspire Abbey, slipped into the room. The cat, strangely large, stepped lithely around the room, slithering around the cleaned plates and empty tankards Egil had tossed carelessly on the floor. Tybern moved like a ship sailing through troublesome waters, twisting and turning and then reaching Egil’s bed. He hopped up, a single, smooth motion during which he seemed to levitate. He landed straight on the side of Egil’s bed.
“By the gods,” Egil muttered. “By Odin’s One Eye. By Thor’s Hammer.” Those were his gods—not this Christ the Christian monks mewled about. But neither Egil’s gods, nor any god, seemed willing to remove Tybern. The cat pawed over to him and rubbed himself against Egil’s side, pressing his fur to the broad shoulder of Blackspire Abbey’s reluctant defender. “Away with you,” Egil ordered. “Leave me to my peace. Go and meow at the monks, you sack of fur.”
Tybern mewed in answer—a piteous, high-pitched whine. Egil sighed and sat up. Clearly, trying to sleep despite the cat and the chanting monks was a fool’s task.
He stood, stretched, and then walked to the shelf where he kept a jug of milk and a saucer. He tossed the saucer down and filled it. Tybern sprang to the milk and lapped it up, his back arching as if he was trying to climb into the bowl. Egil stared out the thin, arched window in the corner of his room.
It looked out over Blackspire Abbey—the courtyard in the center of the various structures, the tall and stately chapel where the monks prayed, the cells where they slept, and the scriptorium where they worked. All the buildings had a ridged, Gothic style, with pinnacles topped with crucifixes that stretched up into the gray clouds. That was only part of Blackspire Abbey. At the end of the courtyard, a small balcony extended.
Beyond that, the cold gray sea crashed against the black rocks that formed the base of the abbey. A wide stairwell wound down from another part of the courtyard, leading to a rocky beach. The monks had added a jutting quay to the natural harbor, where ships from the mainland could come and dock. Blackspire Abbey remained entirely on the inhospitable, secluded island and everything they could not make was brought in from the neighboring Christian kingdoms.
Blackspire Abbey possessed a harsh beauty.
Egil had pledged to protect it and the monks who dwelled there, but at that moment, he would have been happy for the sea to swallow them all.
He dressed quickly, putting his trousers, worn shirt, and blue cloak on over his hulking form. He forced his black beard into a quick braid and then set the helmet over his face. His straight Viking sword and bearded axe—War’s Flame and Frost Cutter—went into his belt. Egil paused and ran a finger along his face. Curling scars crossed every inch of his skin. They ran around his blunt nose, over his hollow cheeks and circled his eyes—one blue and one green. The scars had been with Egil his entire life.
He had not been born, but created—assembled from the bodies of Viking warriors who died in battle on foreign shores, drowned in ferocious storms across the wild seas or perished in bloody feuds in their own countries. A strange hag—an aged witch—had built Egil. He did not know why. Neither, it seemed, did she. Since then, Egil had wandered the earth as a raider and mercenary. Recently, he put that aside and taken up the defense of Blackspire Abbey. The Abbey had no attackers and yet it was not an easy task.
Tybern finished his milk. He strode over to Egil, watching the Viking with his round, shining eyes. Each seemed the size of a warrior’s shield. “Aye,” Egil said. “Time to see the monks.” He pushed open the door and stepped outside. By now, a few weak shafts of sunlight had crept down through the gray clouds. They cast long shadows across the courtyard. Egil walked over the yard, his boots clicking on the even cobblestones, and past the large statue of some saint holding aloft his holy sword. Egil glared at the statue and walked to the great church doors.
With a sigh, he pushed them open and stepped inside. The monks stood in their pews, chanting together and swaying slightly as they recited the Latin words from memory. The Abbot, a rotund fellow named Augustus, stood at the pulpit and chanted along with the monks. His flabby double chin waggled as he waved his hands along with the Latin words. Egil watched him and then looked over the other monks. Tybern appeared at his heels and sat down.
About the Author
Twenty-Four years old, Michael Panush has distinguished himself as one of Sacramento’s most promising young writers. Michael has published numerous short stories in a variety of e-zines including: AuroraWolf, Demon Minds, Fantastic Horror, Dark Fire Fiction, Aphelion, Horrorbound, Fantasy Gazetteer, Demonic Tome, Tiny Globule, and Defenestration.
He is the author of Clark Reeper Tales, his first novel. Michael began telling stories when he was only nine years old. He won first place in the Sacramento Storyteller’s Guild “Liar’s Contest” in 2002 and was a finalist in the National Youth Storytelling Olympics in in 2003. In 2005, Michael’s short story entitled, Adventures in Algebra, won first place in the annual MISFITS Writing Contest.
In 2007, Michael was selected as a California Art’s Scholar and attended the Innerspark Summer Writing Program at the CalArts Institute. He graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 2008 and has recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz.
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