The Dark Glory War by Michael Stackpole is an excellent example of a military fantasy novel. There are lots of battles, lots of blood, heads flying off everywhere, and a large amount of tactics and strategy. The question has to be: do you like this sort of thing? My answer is yes, to an extent. It almost becomes too much, but not quite.
The Moon Month has arrived, and Tarrant Hawkins and his friends are coming of age. This month involves a lot of rituals, tests, festivals and other events to symbolize their transition into manhood. The first test, however, involves being sent out into the wilderness and making their way back to the city. On this trip, they encounter a temeryx, a fierce creature from the Aurolan armies that have been the nemeses of southlanders. They kill it, but with one casualty. This is just the beginning, though.
When they get back to town, they are recruited to join Lord Norrington on his expedition. The temeryx is a sign that the Aurolan armies are on the move again, so Norrington wants to go see the queen and tell her the bad news. On the way, they are jumped by an army of gibberkin (the main members of the Aurolan armies), fierce creatures similar to the orcs in Lord of the Rings. They find out that the province of Okrannel has been overrun and they must go liberate it, as well as relieving the siege of Fortress Draconis, the gateway to the North.
On the way, Leigh, the son of Lord Norrington, discovers a magic sword that carries a price and a prophecy. He will be the savior of the southlands, but ultimately it will break and he will break with it. Will he be able to change this prophecy? And will Tarrant be able to protect him from it? Tarrant and his friends must mature quickly in order to survive the coming war, along with what follows.
This type of military fantasy isn’t for everybody, and if graphic scenes of sword slashes, blood flying, limbs getting chopped off - and other extremely violent scenes - bother you, then you will not enjoy this book, even if I gave it ten stars. The book starts by introducing the four boys (Tarrant, Leigh, Rounce and Nay), three friends and a man (Nay) who becomes a friend as the temeryx fight brings them together. They are asked to join a secret society that works beyond the politics of the various provinces. I have to assume that this may have something to do with subsequent books, because even though the Order of the Phoenix is used slightly later on in the book, nothing much is done with them. Another person who isn’t used much, despite the fact that he gets name billing in the back cover blurb, is Rounce. He is the casualty in the temeryx attack, and while he lives, he takes no further part in the book and is gone by page 100.
Characterization takes a back seat to the plot in this one. None of the characters are given much personality at all. Tarrant, being the narrator (the book is told in first person), is the only one who has any sort of character at all. The rest of the characters are given histories, taking part in the plot, but you don’t really feel like you know them. They are a collection of character traits (Leigh is brash and jumps into things without looking, Nay is a simple man with simple ambitions, but is loyal and a good fighter, etc). Tarrant has a romance later in the book that, while not necessarily unbelievable, doesn’t really fly off the page because his lover has the same problem as the other characters in the book. They are almost character templates out of a role-playing game rather than characters, with mixed and matched traits put into their “personality column.” Only Tarrant is well-explored.
Related to characterization is the fact that the enemies are completely faceless. The only enemy who even gets a name is Chytrine, the “queen” of the north, and even she is completely evil. She’d twirl her moustache if she had one. The rest of the bad guys are hordes and hordes of gibberkin, temeryx (whatever the plural of that is), and three magical creatures that are the generals of the army (and whom it takes a lot of magic to kill). These hordes seem to have the same problem that some people who have seen the Lord of the Rings movies complain about: they outnumber the good guys a hundred to one and still can’t do anything. It does become a bit repetitive.
Finally, the book ends on a cliffhanger. It is a complete book in itself, but the ending comes as a complete change of direction for Tarrant’s life, and it will be interesting to see what happens to him in subsequent novels. If you stop reading with this book, the immediate story will have an ending, so it’s not quite as bad as if the story had just stopped. Still, if this bothers you, then you will probably want to stay away from this book. Personally, I will be checking out the next book, because the description makes it sound like it will be different from this one.
You may notice that, even though I give the book four stars, I’ve been concentrating on the negatives. That’s mainly because this book is really only for people who like this sort of thing. There’s lots of blood, little characterization and not much of a plot except what links the battles together. If that bothers you, then I’m sure you haven’t even reached this far in the review. But if you have, then let me tell you why I enjoyed it. Nobody does this type of book like Stackpole. He makes this stuff interesting, fun, and adds just that little bit of pizzaz to the writing. The battles flow like they were choreographed, and he goes into great detail (both the battles themselves, and the weapons involved as the soldiers get ready for battle). Taken in small doses, this is what military fantasy is all about. The Dark Glory War moves quickly, is a fun read, and has that game-like feel that can be enjoyable on occasion.