This review marks a pretty exciting occasion for me: it's the first book that's not a kink-themed erotica I've reviewed on this blog since Eragon, can you believe it? And what do you know, it also happens to be fantasy! Oh, how I have longed for the warm, tender embrace of my beloved speculative fiction. Despite whatever impressions I might've left with my previous reviews, I'm pretty far out of my element with erotic romance as a genre. So with The Last Swordmage, I almost felt like I was coming home after a long and exhausting business trip... only to discover that what I was coming home to were busted pipes and water in the basement. But home is still home no matter what, right?
The Last Swordmage- Martin F. Hengst
(Note: For once, I'll be trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, just in case any of you would like to check it out for yourselves.)
The Last Swordmage is a self-published high fantasy novel by Martin F. Hengst. It is the first book in The Swordmage Trilogy, and a part of what appears to be a larger series known as the Magic of Solendrea. It follows the story of Tiadaria (Tia for short), a girl who is sold into slavery by her father and is rescued from an unjust execution by Royce, former Captain of the army and secret mage, who takes her in and trains her in the magical and martial arts.
The premise is simple, but it did catch my interest. The unique elements are few and far between, though. Don't expect anything too fancy or original from this book; it's a straightforward, typical, and pretty predictable piece of high fantasy. I guess it's somewhat of an example of the classic "Hero's Journey", but it lacks the epic feel that usually accompanies such a tale. It's a sword and sorcery story which--despite it's title--is sorely lacking in the sorcery department, and somewhat lacking in the sword department as well.
Don't get me wrong, it's not a terrible book, but there were plenty of spots in it where... how should I put this... where it was obvious that it was self-published. I have no wish to offend self-published authors (especially since I myself have often considered self-publishing as a possible option for the future), but what I mean is that there are many pitfalls throughout the story that editors, copy editors, and literary agents would've picked up on over the course of the publication process. It's not terrible as is, but I'm certain that it would never have been published without serious revisions. Typos, repitition, confusing grammar, awkward and long-winded descriptions, inconsistencies in the passage of time, inconsistencies in the rules of magic, and clunky sentence structure all crop up very frequently. Oh, and improper word usage, such as "the nape of the blanket", more than one instance of people "scrubbing" their faces when they're just rubbing them, "doorway" to refer to the actual door, and the words "infusion" and "somnolence" used completely wrong.
The issues of quality run deeper than that, however. At only 229 pages it's a lot shorter than what readers have come to expect from the typical high fantasy novel. The length by itself is not a problem; however, Hengst lacks the skill to tell a complete, fulfilling fantasy in such a succinct manner. Almost all of the problems with this novel can be summed up in one word: unpolished. It comes across as the first draft of a NaNoWriMo novel that Hengst wrote on the fly with limited time to crunch out so many words, and then gave it the bare minimum of revisions before deciding to publish. Again, nothing wrong with Nano or self-publishing (because both are pretty great), but the general feel of the narrative is one of flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants carelessness. There is definitely promise here, though, which I'm sure a good bit more time and effort could have allowed to shine through.
In a lot of ways, The Last Swordmage feels like only half a novel, two-thirds if I'm being generous. Sure, there's a clear and complete plot structure in place, but it never really feels fully fleshed out. The worldbuilding is shoddy, the history of the setting and the backstories of the characters seem incomplete, magic and mages are never fully explained, tons of questions go unanswered until way late in the novel, some questions never get answered, and a bunch of new elements get introduced almost at the very end. It was very frustrating that a novel with the word "swordmage" in the title devotes precious little time to what it actually means to be a swordmage, or even a mage in general. Nor does the novel ever really explore what magic itself is in much detail. We only ever see Tia and Royce use magic in one specific way, and the few other mages we're introduced to more than halfway through the story get a single paragraph of very generic descriptions of spellcasting. It also isn't until near the end that we get a glimpse of the place mages hold in society, but it's still incredibly vague and would've been fascinating to learn about much earlier in the story.
On the other hand, though, when the story wasn't rushing through important details or skipping over them entirely, it dragged. I had thought that this would be a quick read, but it took longer than I had anticipated because I was so frequently putting it down out of boredom. It's very rare that I encounter a novel that feels simultaneously too short and too long. But Hengst seems to have the unfortunate habit of cutting corners when it comes to the important things that make a story seem fully realized while at the same time going overboard on extraneous details. This book needs to be 50 pages shorter in terms of filler and 100 pages longer in terms of the details that we actually want to read. It doesn't help, either, that we don't meet the main villains until about a third of the way in, and the actual plot doesn't really get started until nearly halfway. Look, a short fantasy can be good, but if you're going to limit yourself to 229 pages you can't fuck around.
There are other nits to pick, but most of the other issues I found are at least tangentially related to what I had to say above. Thank God for the highlight and note features for Kindle, because I was highlighting and note-taking on almost every page. It's almost a shame I decided to do a plain review of this book rather than a full sporking/chapter-by-chapter recap, because I really do have a lot more I could say. I almost don't think that would be fair, though, partially because this book is so short and partially because I don't think it's bad or entertaining enough to spork. Oh well, I think I'll save that for something special in the future. For about half the time this was an entertaining enough read, but it didn't draw me in enough for me to want to read the sequels. I'm not saying that others might not want to, though; I meant it when I said that there's promise here, and that there are some interesting details that could develop into something more in the next two books. But personally, I'm just simply not invested enough to care. Final verdict: two and a half stars.