Richard Ford made me into Emperor Palpatine because all I could think reading the opening chapters of Herald of the Storm was, ‘Patience my friend. . .’ None are particularly boring, but they are exhausting. Ford takes eight chapters and some hundred pages before a point of view character is revisited. With only 398 pages to work with, so many characters left the novel rushed and me not particularly invested in anyone’s fate.
Herald of the Storm opens with a herald (stunning right?), coming to the city of Steelhaven. He brings word of his employer’s intent to defeat King Cael in the north, and offers deals to those within the city who will aid him. Despite the rebellion he sows, the populace seems content in their ignorance and life goes on as normal to one degree or another–officials squander their wealth, assassins and thieves lurk in the shadows, and agendas run rampant.
Epic fantasy in its purest form. It is, for lack of any better words, sprawling and atmospheric.
With that as the backdrop, Ford writes eight point of view characters who all have their own self-contained stories. These individual stories tie only loosely into the larger tapestry, resulting in a slow paced, often interesting tale where each character is compelling, but the overall plot is not. Such a description could be a criticism, but I actually present it as praise–Steelhaven is epic fantasy in its purest form. It is, for lack of any better words, sprawling and atmospheric.
Like most epic fantasy novels, and with something of a ‘grimdark’ bent, Steelhaven succeeds and fails with characters. With eight central characters, Ford gives himself plenty of opportunities to strike it rich. It’s unfortunate that he only does so about half the time. Janessa, the princess who refuses to take a husband, and River, the perfect assassin who rebels against daddy assassin (Weeks? Dalglish?) are simply retreads, while Rags, the urchin trying to carve out a living on the streets, and Massoum, the guiltless purveyor of evil, are simply expected.
Others like Nobul, Waylian, Merrick, and Kaira, demonstrate an author playing with archetypes and carving out his own distinct take. Nobul, for example, has something of Logen Ninefingers in him. He’s a hard man who wants to be a good. But, he’s also unique. He’s not just a killer. He’s a failed father, a master craftsman, and full of regret he can’t show. There’s a depth to Nobul that opens up a range of choices for Ford as the author, and makes me, as a reader, desperate to see what direction he takes.
In other words, Steelhaven succeeds as often as it fails, but when it does good it does very good. Ford’s writing carries great energy, and each chapter is well paced with that instinctive quality that prods the reader along to the next one. It makes the entire package well worth reading.
Nobul Jacks performed the song like an artist, working his anvil as well as any fiddler at his bow, his powerful strikes expert in their precision. His formidable frame struck out the rhythm; hammer smashing white-hot steel, which sparked in quick time, filling the smithy with a dirge to rival any orchestra. Steelhaven pg. 40
[Herald of the Storm is] the answer to fans of Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie who always ask, ‘What do I read now?’.
As I read, I came to the realization that my frustrations weren’t with the characters themselves as much as the structure of the novel that held them back. By spreading himself thin, Ford had less time to settle into the world and develop his characters. Add to that the early slog and an overly didactic prologue, and I hope my frustrations with the novel are evident. (As an aside, is there anything less interesting than a messenger on a ship pulling into harbor and struggling to keep his lunch where it belongs? I think it might be time to let the prologue finally finish its slow decline into irrelevance.)
In the end, I can’t tout Richard Ford’s new novel as the next THING. If an author is aping a style that’s been done so well by others, I expect it to be flawless. Steelhaven is not. It is, however, the answer to fans of Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie who always ask, ‘What do I read now?’. Although I don’t believe Ford is at their level in terms of overall craft, he’s certainly getting closer. With a tighter editorial hand, I wager he’ll get there sooner than later. In the meantime, I’ll endeavor to find more patience.
Maybe I really am a Sith Lord.