Book Review: Dawnthief
Dawnthief by James Barclay should by all rights be a terrible book. The plot and setting are a mangled mash up of video game logic, Tolkien and someone’s long-running Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The characters have the depth that you would expect to find on an RPG character sheet. The setting is full of incessant logical inconsistencies and for every Checkov’s gun that appears only about a quarter of them fire off, making for a very frustrating story. It reads very much like the first book of a young author who has read extensively within their genre but very little without it.
Having said all of that, I will be damned if I don’t enjoy Dawnthief. I find myself coming back to it and reading it every few years when I am at a loss which book to pick up next and by now the cardboard cut-out characters are like old friends. The twists and turns and noble sacrifices are like landmarks in a familiar country. While I am perpetually in search of innovation and good writing, there is a comfort to be found in pulp. Pulp is where the fantasy genre flourished from the province of a few poets and bohemians into the powerhouse of popular culture that it is now.
The pulp magazines have all faded into obscurity but the genre is still alive and well, in Japan they have light-novels which capture the madcap experiences of a comic book in text form, in America the media tie-in novels seemed to have taken their place until the sudden boom of the Young Adult market. I am not implying that all light-novels and YA books are mindless, quite the opposite, many of them explore humanity and storytelling from fascinating new angles that would otherwise be neglected. The distinction in my mind is that they do not feel the need to explain themselves. While mainstream fantasy and science fiction tends to tip its hat to the trends of literature, these stories are unapologetically about having fun.
Dawnthief is the fantasy equivalent of the type of thriller that you would find on a wire rack in an airport. A book that you would scoop up, devour before landing and then forget about. You get the joy of the experience without the baggage of analysis. While Barclay went on to write a whole series of sequels exploring the same world and even backtracking to follow the adventures of his leather-clad paramilitary mercenary gang “The Raven,” none of them have ever held my attention or a place in my heart quite like Dawnthief.
Dawnthief is unabashed pulp. The story doesn’t much matter. Any one of the characters could generally be replaced by a standing lamp with a sword taped to it. After you have finished with it you will not be considering the philosophical implications of keeping a demon-cat as your familiar or the alternate methods of mana collection. These things do not matter to Dawnthief. What matters is that it bounces along at a breakneck pace, introducing and murdering characters with gleeful abandon and finishing up with a neat conclusion tied up in a bow, with good having defeated evil and most of the heroes that we are tentatively attached to going on to live happily ever after. The book is fun, and it features a dragon within its very first chapter, so of course I am sold.