While there may be plenty of fantasy heroes who try the lone-wolf route during much of their adventures, it’s rare that they end up alone forever. Every hero, no matter how powerful they are or how much they try to avoid dragging others into the thick of it…sooner or later, they’re going to need allies. That band of friends (or temporarily aligned enemies) that provides critical support, be it physical, moral, or otherwise. The right allies can make-or-break a quest, being both assets and liabilities. Some protagonists try to avoid relying on offered allies because they can become vulnerable points antagonists can take advantage of. Other allies freely offer their support because they see something within the protagonist that is worth following…or protecting…or loving.
Allies can also provide a significant way to measure the impact of the protagonist’s actions. After all, no one adventures in a vacuum, and if one’s allies near-unanimously suggest that a certain course of action is about as wise as trying to stop a blender by sticking your hand in it…then maybe it’s time to reconsider. And in the aftermath of the crisis, one can perhaps weigh the success of the hero’s efforts by how those same allies react to the fallout. Is their faith in the protagonist stronger than ever, or have they been irrevocably alienated? Time to tally up three fantasy tales and see which allies you might prefer to have at your side through thick or thin.
THE RUNDOWN: The second in the Jeremiah Hunt Chronicle series, King of the Dead picks up after Hunt’s attempts to discover the fate of his kidnapped daughter–a personal quest that got him falsely pegged as a serial killer and put on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He’s gone to ground in the company of two other magical practitioners who are helping him learn more about the supernatural community as well as gain greater control of his own unique gifts. When one of his friends has a vision summoning her to deal with a magical plague unleashed in New Orleans, Hunt risks public exposure to help out and save countless souls from death.
THE CONTRAST: Hunt’s main allies here are Denise Clearwater, a powerful witch, and Dmitri, a berserker who can shapeshift into a polar bear. Hunt and Denise have a slow-burning (very very slow…) romance, whereas Dmitri sticks around both out of loyalty to Denise as well as a sense that Hunt is at least a good guy at heart, even if his gruffness and impatience often get the better of him. The nice thing is that Hunt is not the strongest of their band. In fact, you might even say he’s often the bigger liability in the group, with Denise and Dmitri having to make up for either his lack of knowledge or talents. This provides a good sense of balance and character development, so Hunt isn’t able to hog all, if any, of the limelight or the praise.
THE RUNDOWN: Draken vae Khellian starts off in a bad way–blamed for his wife’s murder, exiled from his homeland, beaten near to death, and dumped on the shores of a barbaric foreign country. Soon, though, he finds himself in the company of a powerful mage and also the unlikely right-hand-man to the country’s queen, who is dealing with assassination attempts and the threat of war. Draken must uncover and eliminate the source of an enormous conspiracy while also seeking out the one responsible for his exile in the first place.
THE CONTRAST: As the author, Betsy Dornbusch puts it, one of Draken’s greatest internal struggles in this story is, “Why do these people like me?” Even when Draken makes selfish, revenge-fueled choices that endangers the fate of entire nations, others seem willing to let him lead them, or to risk giving him great authority and power over others. His allies, which include numerous members of the royal court, magical practitioners, and the gods themselves, appear to see something within him–a strength or nobility of spirit–that he is otherwise blind to. And it is this enduring hope of theirs that helps Draken from completely self-destructing and dragging everyone around him into ruin as well.
THE RUNDOWN: (Warning – Minor Spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Changes or Ghost Story) Harry Dresden has finally returned to the land of the living, but finds his circumstances greatly altered. No longer a simple wizard-for-hire, he’s now the Winter Knight for Mab, the insane Fae Queen. When Mab gives him a seemingly impossible task to kill an immortal, Harry must reconnect with those old allies who thought him dead. But can his old friends trust who he has become…or what he might become as the Winter Knight? Because the last guy who held this job ended up being a murderous, sex-crazed, drug-addicted sociopath. And that was on a good day.
THE CONTRAST: Harry Dresden is being forced to play ball for a whole new team, and his old allies aren’t quite sure what to make of this. Much of the interaction circles around whether he can even be trusted, or whether he’s now just another plaything for Mab. Readers will likely want to root for the good ol’ Dresden they’ve come to know, even while seeing the valid points his allies make as new, disturbing behaviors start to trickle into his thoughts and actions. Even when some agree to fight alongside him once more, Harry’s allies are quick to point out when he starts to stray a bit too far into the realm of “uncomfortably comfortable with violence and mayhem.”
In this instance, both King of the Dead and Cold Days require a bit of extra reading before I’d suggest jumping into them. King of the Dead is the sequel to Eyes to See, and both are strong urban fantasies that dish up a healthy serving of horror as well. But give Eyes to See a try first to see if it’s the flavor of fantasy you enjoy, and get filled in on the essential story that’s been established so far. The same with Cold Days, which is the 14th book in the Dresden Files series. Lots to catch up on if you haven’t been following along there, but the series is incredible and worth the time investment.
For those wanting to avoid “reading homework” in order to enjoy a new book, Exile serves nicely. It’s a great standalone sword and sorcery story that also serves as the starting point for Dornbusch’s new series. It provides incredible diversity in its characters, magic, creatures, and lands, and plenty of moral warrens through which to wander.
And whenever you get around to gathering your own band of allies, just make sure they run slower than you, so the monsters catch up to them first.