Book Review: The Tattered Banner
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Every week of 2016 I am going to read and review a book. This means that while you may not always get an in depth dissection whatever my gut reaction to a book was will be presented here without time softening my opinions.
I think that the time has probably come to admit something to you all. I am a fantasy fan. This doesn’t come with the shameful associations that it did a couple of decades back when everyone automatically assumed that meant you were fat, had a beard, worshipped Terry Pratchett as the second coming of Christ, had no friends outside of your Dungeons and Dragons party and could quote Monty Python and the Holy Grail on demand, in spite of demands for you to stop and frequently in the middle of unrelated conversations. Nowadays being a fantasy fan is pretty much the normal state of affairs. The Lord of the Rings were huge movies. Game of Thrones is the most popular television show to have ever existed. World of Warcraft has a fan base the size of continental Europe. Dame Judi Dench and Vin Diesel play D&D in their trailers between shoots. Fantasy is normal now and there has been a huge upswing in the number of fantasy books being published. It is a golden age for people like me who used to wait years for a decent fantasy book to be released. Unfortunately, with the flood have come some unfortunate hangers on.
The Tattered Banner by Duncan M. Hamilton is not the worst fantasy book I have ever read by a long shot. It came along in the midst of a swarm of extremely similar stories of poor orphan boys being accepted into the elitist school of their chosen fantasy profession and would have had to really excel to stand out against the likes of Blood Song and The Name of the Wind. It didn’t excel, it trundled through its story, dropping heavy hints about a few future events and then ground to a halt.
There are three fundamental problems with this book, the first is the romance, the second is the fencing and the third is a little more esoteric. Our hero Soren, raised up from the streets by a talent spotting duellist was finally finding his way in the world thanks to his secret magic birth-right when he becomes completely smitten with some girl in the pub. He sees her on a couple of occasions afterwards, their interactions are tepid at best, yet vengeance for her becomes a motivation that somehow supplants all the respect and adoration he had for his patron by the end of the story.
The problem with the fencing is that it is meant to be at the core of this book, yet it lacks any visceral quality whatsoever, the vague descriptions give only the faintest idea of what is happening in the sword-play and ultimately it feels like the author tired of writing fight scenes early on and just glazed over for the rest of the book whenever they were required. I am not saying that every fight in a book has to be huge and dramatic or that there should even be a focus of action in a fantasy book but when you write a book about sword fighting, with a main character who is the best sword fighter ever, then it would help if his victories were not all thanks to his secret magical birth-right. I swear that I sigh every time I have to type that phrase.
The final problem of the book is a fundamental lack of understanding about how fantasy works. Magic and the supernatural are defined in the fantasy genre by their limitations. If you can raise the dead then a character’s death has no meaning. If you can turn back time then all actions have no meaning and in The Tattered Banner there is no limitation on what Soren’s magical birth-right can do. It sustains him when he should be starving to death. It lets him out-fight magical robots designed to be impossible to defeat. It removes any possibility of suspense from a story that is meant to be entirely about suspense.
The Tattered Banner is a perfectly serviceable fantasy book set in a slightly more renaissance world than is conventional and it handles the “rich boy bully” trope in an interesting way. There are many good points to this book that might make you want to pick it up but given the sheer volume of great fantasy novels out there, being good just isn’t good enough.