PROS: Rich, character-based fantasy.
CONS: Central conflict revealed a bit too slowly.
BOTTOM LINE: An unusual but not unwelcome turn into fantasy from a hard SF author.
The Puzzle Lands are a small realm on the borders of a noisome and aggressive kingdom determined to bring their rule and their God to their northern neighbor. The Puzzle lands, lacking numbers, are forced to use cleverness, guile, and the natural terrain to resist being conquered by the Hetawan. The tightly knit ruling family, possessing magical abilities and talents, do all they can to keep their enemies at bay, having been bound to that service generations ago.
A prodigy at killing and war, Smoke, on the other hand, is in hiding from his family in the forest outside of the Puzzle Lands. His chance meeting with a shepherdess on the road will change him, and unwittingly bring him back to the fold of the family he has fled, for good or ill.
Such is the matter of The Dread Hammer, the first Puzzle Lands novel from Linda Nagata, far better known for her award winning nanotech novels and stories. In The Dread Hammer, she turns her attention to secondary world fantasy. The subtitle of the novel is “A tale of love, war, murder, marriage and fate”, and she means it. While the central relationship and conflict is between Smoke and his family, especially his father and his wife, the book weaves together the stories of the Bidden family that serves and rules the Puzzle Lands, and those who come into contact with it.
It is that character development and conflict that is the strongest and foremost virtue of the book. The details are revealed slowly as we uncover Smoke’s relationship to the family, and the family’s relationships with each other. The prose is extremely subtle and clever, and it takes an attentive reader to fully unlock and enjoy the character dynamics and relationships. Smoke is undoubtedly the focus of the novel and the main character. I do have a soft spot for the twins, Takis and Tayval. The latter, especially. Although Tayval is ostensibly mute, she is as capable and powerful as her sister, leading me to wonder if she isn’t the real ruler of the Puzzle Lands, instead of her father or sister.
Another good feature of the novel is the map of the territory. The dynamic between a large, aggressive kingdom and a smaller one under threat is hardly a new one. Even the idea of difficult terrain that favors the outnumbered defenders isn’t groundbreaking. The novel adds some arcane elements to this mix, showing that the terrain itself is somewhat variable and changeable, a trap and dangerous to any army attempting to conquer it. And yet for all that, it is made absolutely clear that these defenses, while strong, could and would be whittled away if the Lutawan King threw enough soldiers at the problem. The Wild Wood, where another major portion of the novel takes place has strong resemblances to the Puzzle Lands with a curious geography and a physical terrain that makes intruders and invaders regret their entry. But, again, it’s just an obstacle and roadblock to be overcome. I found the trip to the dark heart of the wood analogous to a trip into the heart of the Puzzle Lands themselves.
The magic of the novel falls squarely on the “defined rules” spectrum of order and chaos. It’s not particularly high and flashy magic, it’s the magic of binding, of speedy travel, and spells upon the land. There are prices and consequences and defined limits as well. The magic suits the character-focused nature of the novel. For instance, Ketty manages to bind and fix Smoke’s name *as* Smoke. I found this sort of naming very reminiscent of some traditions of Faerie. And, of course, to name something and to give a name to something is to have power over it. The implications of this are felt throughout the remainder of the novel.
As far as the writing, the novel is lean, and reads at a very good clip. The inner lives of the characters are delimited well. In some ways, the writing reminded me of the well formed and beautiful prose of Helen Lowe’s The Heir of Night. Some of the dialogue and manners of address felt similar, in particular the use of the possessive “My” in referring to people. For the scale of the book, that’s somewhat difficult to pin down. While the novel focuses on character and family dynamics, the eventual fate of the Puzzle Lands is what drives the conflict swirling around Smoke. So, maybe the book rates a 3 and a half on my stakes scale?
My major criticism is the pace with which central the conflict is revealed. While as I said above that there are a large number of character threads and conflicts running through The Dread Hammer, the father-son dynamic is drives much of the action and needs of the plot. And it takes too long to manifest in a direct fashion. When things do come to a head, its a little undercut by that. One other thing-the meeting between Ketty and Smoke/Dismay at the beginning, and how and why he knows so much about him only makes sense in retrospect, maybe too much so, once we learn much more about Smoke and his abilities. It takes some buy-in from the reader to accept their meeting at the time we read about it.
I was extremely surprised to see the author try her hand at fantasy, but given that many SF authors are trying that these days, perhaps I should not have been. Nagata may have traded nanotech for magic here, but strong character voices and character dynamics, a hallmark of her other work, suits her in fantasy.