The New Doomed Prince
By Cheryl Morgan
There is a sense in which most fantasy novels descend in some way from either Tolkien on Moorcock. Not that Tolkien is much to blame for this; but books that claim to be following in his tradition have become more and more innocuous and anodyne, whereas those following Moorcock have become more gritty and doom-laden. Tom Lloyd manages a certain amount of both in his debut novel, The Stormcaller, in that he starts off with a young man plucked from poverty and obscurity to be made heir to his country’s ruler, the enigmatic and brutal Lord Bahl. Yet it is soon clear that young Isak is much more like the Prince of Melniboné than like Aragorn.
To start with Isak is what an SF novel might call a mutant. Certainly he isn’t human. He is a "white-eye" a variant of humanity noted for being big, strong, short-tempered and ruthless in battle. White-eyes are born of normal women, but are so large even as babies that their mothers invariably die in childbirth. The less intelligent of them end up as elite soldiers, and the more intelligent, like Lord Bahl, become rulers.
There you have an Elrik connection straight away, for Isak has already killed his mother and, should he take a lover, there’s a good chance he’d be condemning her to death if he got her pregnant. Like most white-eyes, however, Isak is less interested in girls than he is in swords. A few chapters into the book three men are already dead. Isak killed them all. This is not comfort reading. And just to make the point Lloyd provides Isak with a pretty, noble-born maid who, while initially attracted to the impressive young man, is soon alternately terrified and revolted by the cold-hearted killer she’s commanded to serve.
Of course there is no drinking of souls involved. But then Isak has more prosaic matters to worry about. You see one of the best aspects of The Stormcaller is that Lloyd doesn’t assume that being a long lost prince dragged from obscurity to wealth and power is easy. Firstly Isak knows nothing about how to behave in polite society: how to be diplomatic, how to inspire loyalty, how to dispense justice and so on. Furthermore, any young man thrown into such a situation is likely to be immediately surrounded by eager "friends". Isak soon finds himself the target of ambitious nobles and mad prophets; even gods try to attach themselves to his banner. And an equally large collection of people, both natural and supernatural, is seeking to kill him before he learns to use his powers. Before long Isak realizes that, as a prominent political figure, he is going to have to ask his real friends to do things they may end up hating him for. That is perhaps the reality for which Elric’s soul drinking is merely a metaphor
More generally, the world that Lloyd has created seems much more real than that of most fantasy books. He doesn’t have the superb characterization and plotting of George R.R. Martin, nor the stark contrast of bleakness and humor that characterizes Steven Erikson, but he has created a fantasy world that has believable politics and is inhabited by large numbers of ordinary people as well as the major characters. Both Martin and Erikson often give the impression that if ordinary people do exist in their world they are probably all dead by now because of the awful things that have happened in the stories.
This is not to say that Lloyd’s world is devoid of the supernatural. For example, he has a dragon:
Now a head appeared from the shadows, dipping down the slope with a deliberate lack of speed. It was fully two yards long, with a frill of bone sweeping back from the top of its head, which in turn was flanked by two huge horns that twisted back and up, another two yards long themselves. A wide snout held rows of glittering teeth; the protrusion of nostrils broke its smooth curve, and a pair of tusk-like horns pointed forward from behind the frill of bone, almost as far as the very tip of the snout. Behind that lay two huge eyes, glimmers of deepest red in the underground night.
And he has elves (at least temporarily):
Now it was always the enemy when the soldiers spoke, not the elves: the enemy was a faceless creature, one to destroy. It needed no name.
And yes, both of them seem rather more real than they do in most fantasy books.
If there is an area where I think the book falls down it is probably on plot. There is clearly lots going on. Lloyd has got into the whole thing of portentous and mysterious events that happened in the past that need to be investigated, and there is a fair amount of political intrigue, but it is rather difficult to follow what is going on because of all the unfamiliar names. Hopefully the final version will include a dramatis personae (I’ve been reading a proof). Also I get the impression that the book was actually written to be two volumes. There is a fairly obvious natural break half way through, with the first half ending in Isak’s first battle. The feel of the second half is very different. Some of the characters seem a lot more grown up. The narrative drops into a long, expository section where Isak meets mysterious people who know more about him than he does himself, before exploding into action again.
On the other hand, things come together fairly nicely at the end, and there is clearly a lot more to come. There are also some traces of real magic, as opposed to the mainly role-playing game style magic that the book had featured up to that point. Lloyd manages the important task of providing a satisfying ending while leaving his readers wondering what will happen next. I think he’ll do rather well.