“No death is as slow as Life.”
SHATTERED DREAMS by Ulff Lehmann is a grimdark low fantasy epic which immediately draws comparisons to A Game of Thrones for the fact it is a multi-perspective view on an invasion of a Medieval country by its northern neighbors. It deals with the supernatural, politics, and violence in a non-romanticized way which works well for bringing about this is a gritty world where people are killed for trivial reasons. One of the best moments of the book is at the start when there’s a casual murder in the street and no one dares lift a finger.
The short version of the plot, which is a bit of an oxymoron given this is an epic, is the kingdom of Danastaer is being invaded by Chanastardh. The latter already has a huge advantage in terms of soldiers and resources but they’ve also gained a new, seemingly insurmountable one, in magic. This despite the fact magic has been missing for a long time. Five individuals follow this invasion from their perspective.
Mercenary Drangar Ralgon is forced out of self-imposed exile even though he is suffering from severe mental trauma due to an incident where he committed a terrible crime. The holy warrior Kildanor, meanwhile, tries to find the enemies’ plans so he can deduce how to stop this dreadful invasion. The sorceress Ealisaid awakens from magical hibernation to find a world where culture has been virtually wiped out and replaced by brutish warlords. The politically savvy Anne struggles to protect her family’s position when the rule of law takes a backseat to practicality. Finally, the elf Lloreanthoran is sent by his people to recover a cursed book.
The biggest criticism I have for the book is it switches around a great deal and deals with a lot of plot threads that get left to future books to resolve. I can’t help but think the book might have been improved if it had stuck with a somewhat smaller cast of individuals or even followed a single perspective per book. Drangar’s story was the most interesting to me and the most traditionally “grimdark” as it dealt with a soldier suffering PTSD before it was ever diagnosed in a society that reveres violence. It’s pretty far removed from an elf seeking a cursed magical book while he chats with his talking squirrel Bright Eyes (who is awesome, BTW). The book also stops at the end versus resolving most of its plot points and ends on a cliffhanger.
The book also suffers a bit from the naming conventions issue which plague some fantasy novels. Keeping straight an entire new world and all of its terminology as well as characters is a hard task, especially when you have so many like Ulff Lehmann’s new world. This is a book which would have benefited from a glossary at the start or, again, easing the reader into things. Instead, it dumps you right in the middle of things and lets you play catch up. Then again, maybe it’s me as it took me three reads to get A Game of Thrones mastered. I may just have the attention span of…hey, what’s that!
With my criticism out of the way, I have to say I really like Ulff Lehmann’s writing style. There’s about four or five interesting books spread across Shattered Dreams and all of them are interesting. He has a way of taking high fantasy concepts like elves, archwizards, and world-ending threats then treating them in the most gritty unromantic manner possible. This is a world where wizard fireballs may fly at people but it will describe people burning to death followed by their ashen corpses getting trodden on by the invaders they failed to stop.
The handling of religion in the world is also something I was really interested in as we have several mutually contradictory but true faiths in the setting. There’s no real substitute Catholic Church in the setting but “civilized” worship and the more wild pagan warrior cults which Kildanor is a part of yet have no real place in modern society–at least until things start to go to hell. I would have read a book entirely about them.
I also want to praise Ulff Lehmann’s handling of Medieval combat and action scenes. The battles are brutal and bloody with a keen eye to detail. This isn’t a place where people have long sword-fights but a person is struck then is either wounded (and probably bleeding out) or dead. He also actually has people surrender, which is something that I think way too few fantasy novels bother with. Way too many characters in fantasy are fanatics for their causes.
In conclusion, I recommend reading Shattered Dreams and picked up the sequel as soon as I finished the first book. This is a solid story with great characters as well as action scenes. The audiobook version just came out and I think I recommend it over the regular text version. The narrator just brings some real feeling to the characters that improves an already good story.