BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The travelling bard Talus and his companion Bran find themselves with a murder on their hands as they pass through the island of Creyak. The victim? The king. Who could commit such a crime? At first, it appears there is no clear motive and no suspect daring enough to kill the king and anger the spirits in the afterlife. But Talus and Bran soon find that the peaceful and isolated Creyak holds its share of secrets.
PROS: The juxtaposition of a detective narrative and investigation that reminds you of many police procedural dramas against an unlikely setting; the murder mystery and reveal are decent and satisfactory; the interpersonal relationships between the island natives, especially the sons of the king, are genuine and interesting to see unwind; the novel diversifies the cast with the inclusion of a gay character.
CONS: The writing tries to evoke a film noir feel, but most sentences turn into telegrams and at times it feels like you have a woodpecker in your head; Talus is supposed to read as a smart and cunning character who has everything under control, but remains a condescending grouch throughout the novel; Bran reads like a plot device that prompts Talus to explain every detail and break in the case to the reader.
BOTTOM LINE: I’ve had a maddening experience with Talus and the Frozen King because when Edwards nails it, this book is a page turner. I had no idea who the murderer was and all the suspects had the motivation to commit the crime. I loved the concept and how the investigative process translates into the Neolithic era. But when Edwards misses the mark, the novel makes me want to bang my head against a wall. I fluctuated between adoration and pure rage every thirty or so pages.
Talus and the Frozen King is at its core a whodunit murder mystery, so any discussion of plot holds little to no merit. I’m going to provide key points with as few spoilers as possible, but some minor spoilers may slip in. Beware, reader!
The novel finds Talus and Bran on a journey to find the source of the northlight – the rumored place where the worlds of the living and the dead bleed into each other. However, they run off course when the pair passes through the isolated island of Creyak and discover the ruler, King Hashath, murdered and dragged out into the harsh winter. Initially suspected of committing the murder themselves, Talus and Bran have to prove their innocence to the King’s eldest son and soon-to-be-king Tharn, avoid capital punishment, and bring the culprit to justice.
Talus quickly disperses suspicions about the duo’s involvement in the crime and moves on to interview all suspects including all six of Hashath’s sons – eldest to youngest – and the rather hostile village shaman, Mishina. Aided by the sharp-minded herb gatherer and servant of the royal family, Lethriel, Talus and Bran maneuver through the complicated family relationships and involve themselves with the politics of the island. The (at first) peaceful nation reveals a dark past with scars that still ache.
Blending hallmark characteristics and set tropes associated with genres, which generally don’t seem to have all that much in common, gives works playfulness and in parts reinvigorates the components so they feel fresh and animated on the page. This worked in great favor for Alex Bledsoe’s The Sword-Edged Blonde – a delectable, adventurous romp for fans who enjoy a bit of noir in their fantasy.
Talus and the Frozen King benefits from the novelty in reading about a bard amidst an investigation as a detective in the Neolithic era. In fantasy, murder acts as a catalyst. It spurs the protagonist into action and the murderer is almost always known or their identity is easy enough to discover if you know whom to ask. In Talus and the Frozen King, the murder investigation takes the lead and its narrative serves as the foundation for much of the characters’ development. From my own reading and consumption of media in the fantasy genre, brothers either attempt to murder each other outright or fight by each other’s side selflessly. Edwards convincingly creates a dysfunctional family with complicated sibling relationships, which makes it very hard to find the murderer among the suspects.
As Talus and Bran gather information, learn more about Creyak and follow a methodology in their investigation complete with reenactments, alibis and material evidence that won’t be out-of-place on any police drama, the plot thickens and politics come into play (as they’re wont to do with a king’s murder). The novel begins to wobble as rivalling ruler, Farrum, finds his way in Creyak at the worst of times, causing more tension. This is where Edwards has Talus stall a big reveal to prolong the story, which feels contrived and unnecessary. There are whole chapters after the murderer has been apprehended where nothing of importance happened.
Talus appears to be the biggest hindrance to fully enjoying the novel. Despite being in the title as the person who solves the crime, most of the novel is told through Bran – a fisherman who has tragically lost his wife and still re-lives her death two years later. The fact that he begins on a journey and finds purpose in a quest, because his wife was murdered off in flashbacks, had me groan. For once I’d like to read about a reluctant hero, whose origin story does not involve a dead wife or fiancé. But let’s get back to Talus – travelling bard and detective extraordinaire.
I can’t fathom how a bard with Talus’ attitude could’ve survived so long on the road without a king/chief/elder having him beheaded. Bards are known for winning people over with their tales and stories, general good cheer and understanding of the human nature. If this is taking place in the Neolithic era (which it is), communities would be even more distrusting and unwelcoming of strangers. Talus doesn’t make it easy for people to like him because he has no regard for the authority of others, as easily seen in his initial interactions with Tharn. Edwards has surgically transplanted the attitude and personality of a hardened P.I. onto a bard with disastrous results as Talus has a preoccupation with calling out Bran on his stupidity with remarks about how he “looks, but doesn’t see”. (Trust me, you’ll read a lot of those.) It’s a shame, because a bard with a cheery predisposition but incredible cunning would have been a blast to read about.
There are many other issues I took with the novel, from the unserviceable writing (though I’m always hard to please where prose is concerned), to outright spelling out what’s happening to the readers, to some stilted dialogue — especially where the author attempts to develop light banter between Talus and Bran. Nevertheless, Edwards has put a lot of thought into the murder itself with a few convincing red herrings and the inclusion of a gay character and his life in a very small island community. Wish I could speak more about it, but that would reveal spoilers.
To say Talus and the Frozen King is a bad novel would be a bit harsh and cruel, because it has its strengths and it certainly didn’t leave me indifferent, but it wasn’t the right book for me.