Nathan’s review of The Sword Defiant by Gareth Hanrahan
Gareth Hanrahan opens up a new fantasy series that is absolutely filled to the brim with magic, creatures, battles, and so much more. There is a lot going on in these 600+ pages, and therefore I think there will be a lot of readers who will absolutely devour this one, while others may have a much more subdued response.
Overall, I kind of fell somewhere in the middle. There was a lot that kept me turning the pages in The Sword Defiant, but I found there were enough drawbacks to the narrative to keep it from being an all time favorite.
As always, let’s start with the good!
I really loved Hanrahan’s main characters, particularly the two POV characters – Alf and his sister Olva. In the broadest sense, Alf is a pretty difficult character archetype to write. The middle-aged, gruff, and introverted ex-soldier all can start to feel like Geralt of Rivia – relatively bland and lacking personality. These characters can work as side characters and be endearing, but as the core they can come across as simply plot vessels (see: Rand al’Thor in The Wheel of Time). Alf never felt this way to me. He felt unique amongst his archetype compatriots in other books, a character I enjoyed spending time with without having to be exuberant.
It very much helped that Alf is surrounded by larger than life characters. This includes his dwarven best friend but is best exemplified by his evil talking sword. Yes, there is an evil talking sword who is an absolute riot. The sword was originally made and owned by The Dark Lord but came into Alf’s possession when Alf killed The Dark Lord. This sword had more personality than most fantasy characters put together. I would most definitely read an entire prequel series with this sword at the center. The sword was simultaneously a perfect foil to Alf, while also be surprisingly layered in its desires, loyalties, and goals. If any character will surprise you while reading The Sword Defiant, it’s this one.
I have less to say about Olva, the other POV character in the novel. She isn’t quite as complex or memorable as Alf (she is a pretty standard version of the “strong mother going to rescue her child” type), and her plot is a lot less interesting than what Alf is going through. At times, it did feel like her plot was intentionally being slowed down because there was less going on and Alf’s plot needed to catch up.
The rest of the cast of characters (and it is a pretty large cast) is a mixed bag of people you will loathe, characters you will love, and some that you won’t quite know what to feel about. Hanrahan took on the unenviable task of introducing a lot of characters in a short amount of time; this is always the challenge of a book that has a questing band of nine people that need to be introduced. Some of them have a relatively low page count (since they all have their own reasons for not coming around very much), and it takes a bit of time to keep them all straight.
This is my first Hanrahan book, but I have always heard that he is a master at worldbuilding. This is not a lie. The Sword Defiant is almost bursting at the seams with how much Hanrahan has shoved into just this one book. There are multiple creatures, political entities, heroes, villains, and everything in between that are come to life with their own histories, lore, and backgrounds.
One of my favorite things about Hanrahan’s worldbuilding here is that he was able to seamlessly combine elements of fantasy that felt comfy and traditional with elements that completely flew in their own directions. Here you will find elves, dwarves, orcs, and the rest of the races/creatures that have come to dominate “traditional” epic fantasy. And yes, they will definitely be recognizable to you. Elves have a dramatically extended lifespan (in fact, they are immortal in this world) and they are kind of pretentious; the dwarves come from the mountains and are endearingly gruff; the evil big bad coming back to power gives a sinister aura to the setting and plot. But Hanrahan also knows how to throw all of these things into a blender and sees what comes out.
I just wish that Hanrahan was as interested in the plot as much as he was in the world. This book really is its setting, and other than that the plot is pretty thin. The plot itself is dragged out over the chonky book, especially in its first half. I often forgot what the goals of the main characters even were a lot of the time because the narrative would stray into so many unrelated or semi-related directions. So while the large page count aided the worldbuilding, it came a bit at the book’s overall pace and coherency.
Because of these plot issues, I never felt as immersed in Hanrahan’s world as I would have liked to have been. I felt like I was floating above this world rather than actually being able to dwell in it. It was a world I enjoyed exploring in a very top-down two-dimensional kind of way; I liked hearing about the history and mythology and the political factions arguing over the best way to run the city, but I never felt like I was in the world with the characters. I was always slightly distanced from them and everything else going on. Despite the detailed worldbuilding, the world felt empty (and not just because it was a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting), but because the world’s third dimension lacked richness and texture.
This really became a problem as the characters, particularly Olva, left Necrad to visit other parts of the world. Hanrahan paints Necrad so beautifully with clarity and detail, and yet the rest of the world is barren and generic. Whenever the narrative wasn’t fixed on Necrad, I lost interest as I lost my sense of place in the book. In some books and storytelling styles this really works (like books going for that classical epic style), but I don’t think it is what Hanrahan really envisioned here.
My only other small quibble with the book was that, at times, the book didn’t quite know what it wanted to be in terms of its tone. As I said above, there were a lot of scenes that were quite humorous, but the city of Necrad was supposed to have this very mysterious quality around it. The clash between the humor (which is pretty joke-y like Nicholas Eames and less wry than Joe Abercrombie) clashes with the more dark/grimdark adjacent elements.
Despite some of the drawbacks of the book, I still enjoyed my time with The Sword Defiant, and I will pick up the sequel once it comes out. Hopefully, with the first book exposition out of the way, the series can really start to hit its stride.
Concluding Thoughts: Fans of traditional epic fantasy who like large casts of characters, the traditional fantasy races, and lots of action will be completely enthralled by what Hanrahan has to offer here. A Dark Lord imprisoned and now released, this book combines everything nostalgic about big chunky fantasy books and puts a spin on it. At times the worldbuilding gets in the way of the book’s plot and pacing, which prevented me from feeling fully immersed in the story, but it was still a fun adventure that I will be continuing with.