By Dave Duncan
Hardcover, 332 pages
2017, Nightshade Books/Skyhorse Publishing
Durwin, a lame Saxon, earns a spot at a small enchanting academy run by Normans thanks to his skill with horses. Unlike the other students, he must work to earn his keep and his heritage makes it harder for him to advance. After an incident in class, Durwin’s skill is recognized and once he’s finally promoted to adept, he finds himself rushing to solve a string of murders before the death count rises.
I won this from a Friday Freebie giveaway on the Skyhorse Instagram page and though I didn’t think I’d dislike it, I was surprised by how compelling it was since I knew nothing about it. Yes, I just saw that it was fantasy and entered the giveaway – come now, no one is surprised.
Durwin, sometimes called Ironfoot because of the boot he wears due to an accident that caused his broken leg to heal shorter than the other, is a level-headed, bright student determined to become a mage. Most of his fellow students and all his instructors are Normans and Durwin is constantly aware of his lower social status- at twenty, he’s older than many squires his age after being skipped over for promotion to adept. The social disparity is especially apparent when he finds himself bullied by a new student, William. Unable to fight back, Durwin’s patience is constantly tried by the younger boy and while he longs to fight him, he is smarter enough not to.
While Durwin is smart, patient, determined…and boring. He’s not made out to be perfect, but he’s a generally shining example of a person and I found him to be incredibly bland. He made a few mistakes, but nothing with any far-reaching consequences, and he seemed to learn from his experiences. He’s smart enough to see errors in ancient spells and correct them in order to make the spells work after years of being thought to be useless.
Look, I can hear you groaning because you know how I hate the ‘perfect’ teens found in YA and you’re wondering why this seemingly average character isn’t enough to satisfy me. That’s the problem; Durwin is skilled enough to tackle any task thrown his way, with minimal effort or aggravation. He’s not truly average, yet he doesn’t seem to have any exceptional skills. Whatever, guys, I just found him boring and didn’t connect!
The rest of the story worked for me though. I enjoyed the character arc and growth of William however – he was a bully with depth and once he’s forced to work with Durwin, he’s given considerably more depth than Durwin is.
The murder mystery added into the story of a student at a magical academy kept the plot from feeling stale. I had some suspicions, but the twist had me foiled, so I was still surprised at the end. Granted, I’m not one to wrack my brain desperately trying to figure out the killer because I like being surprised at the end.
The magic in this book is based on singing or chanting enchantments, typically with at least two sages (or adepts or squires) though some can be sung solo or with three or more. The academy has many old scrolls and grimoires with spells that the sages have decided no longer work, but it is discovered that many were transcribed wrong over the years or contain purposeful errors to trip up the unschooled. I liked all of this and wanted to know more about the ancient magic and different types of spells.
This novel feels like it falls somewhere halfway between YA and adult fantasy, as there’s swearing and a few sex scenes, yet Durwin feels young for twenty and his journey from squire to adept feels very coming of age. It’s also a stand-alone (I assume), which is refreshing because I already have a zillion series I need to finish!
If you’re looking for a one-shot fantasy with a pretty compelling bully and a murder mystery set in England in the 1100s, I would recommend this.