Paladin Unbound by Jeffrey Speight is an old-school fantasy book that reads like a D&D campaign with action and character moments in perfect balance.
I picked up this book on the recommendations of several friends who said it would scratch my TTRPG itch, and boy, did it ever! I plowed through it in 48 hours, mostly at the beach, and it was an enjoyable ride. The main character, Umhra the Peacebreaker (what a name, btw!), is a half-orc leading a band of misfits on the hunt for a job. The job turns ugly, and leads to another quest, and another, building up to world-level stakes and a satisfyingly epic final battle involving the gods themselves.
The world is very well fleshed out for such a short book (around 300 pages), and the descriptions of the towns and cities put you right in the action. The main character has some complexity to him, and the side characters are reasonably well fleshed out, but don’t get too attached to any of them. Speight is not afraid to kill a character or two, but it’s not a TPK either (that’s Total Party Kill for the non-D&D readers out there). The action is virtually non-stop, with rising stakes in each leg of the adventure and plenty of side quests and chance encounters to liven up the narrative. There are quiet moments in between the adventures, where the characters and the readers get a break from the mayhem, and we get little insights into their relationships and backgrounds.
The book’s greatest strength may also be a weakness for some readers. The world and the story are very conventional, old-school, classic D&D style, which is very satisfying if you’re looking for that sort of thing, but at times I found it a bit too “by the book” classic fantasy. Though the fantasy races and creatures sometimes have different names and slightly different characteristics than ones you see in other books and in TTRPG, almost everything is immediately recognizable from fantasy lore. Which could make this a perfect comfort read, as it was for me, but your results may vary. The book knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it does it exceedingly well, but I would have liked to see it stray a bit farther from the genre conventions. I did appreciate the twist on the paladin concept, which I won’t spoil here. Umhra is anything but your traditional paladin, and the mystery behind his origin and his powers was well paced and intriguing.
Paladin Unbound is highly recommended for readers eager for a rollicking swords and sorcery adventure that can be quaffed in great gulps like a mug of frothy tavern ale.