Genre: Shared World, Dungeons and Dragons, Sword and Sorcery
Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast; Original edition
Publication Date: December 6, 2011
Author Website: Matthew Beard
Sometimes, pure escapism is all I ask from a book. When The Last Garrison by Matthew Beard arrived at my doorstep, I knew this was what I needed as a brain break from the difficult texts I was reading for my MA degree courses. So I set to reading it in my few spare moments. One the one hand, I was pleased the book asked little of my over-weary brain. On the other, I was able to see how the straightforward story may disenchant a reader in a day and age when Game of Thrones is the bestselling fantasy novel.
Beard’s debut novel is a sword and sorcery set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe. In the tale, the reclusive town of Haven is besieged by kenku (raven-man) marauders. Formerly protected by an ancient magician known as the Old Stargazer, the town had known no strife for centuries. But the old man’s powers are weakening and the kenku are attacking and killing villagers. The town council, sensing the danger, sends a small band of adults and young people to recruit defenders. They do so, heading into the city down the mountain from their village. Successful, the town representatives bring the adventurers home. The story culminates in a final battle between the kenku, the adventurers and the townspeople.
The Last Garrison reads like (and probably is) a novelization of a D&D adventure for which Beard was dungeon master. For characters, we have a clear cut evil villain, whose perspective we read in hints and asides ready and waiting for the hero of the hour to take on in hand to hand combat in the final battle scene. There is the ostracized orphan boy, Nergei, servant of Old Stargazer; Kohel, a bully, son of the chief of the village; Luzhon, the almost-raped love interest and battleground for the aforementioned boys who discovers her warrior femininity over the course of the novel; the aging warrior and his companion dwarf; a female monk-warrior-artist; a mage and his archer sister; and a giantess they pick up when returning to Haven. Beard perhaps bit off a little more than he could chew with so many characters and their corresponding perspectives. None of the characters gets more than a cursory back-story, and each follows a predictable, stereotypical path that their natures and their occupations destined them to from the moment the reader meets them. Nergei, Luzhon, and Kohel are ostensibly the characters the reader is meant to identify with, but Beard only relies on tropes instead of storytelling depth to gain audience sympathy for the characters and so ends up with caricatures rather than real people.
For plot, the story is clear-cut. From the outset, the goal of the characters is to protect the town of Haven from a threat the like of which they have not seen for centuries and, if lucky, find out who is responsible for setting the kenku onto the village in the first place. Though I found the characterization to be flat, I did enjoy this aspect of the tale for its ease of reading. As I mentioned before, I was working on MA homework, and so reading Beard’s simply constructed plotline was a welcome relief in the hours before sleep. However, in the clear light of day, I can observe that such a simple plot will likely deter readers. I will mention, however, that there is a plot twist at the end, not wholly unexpected, but it does make for some good battle scenes after the reader thought Beard had already entered the dénouement. I have to say I liked it, even if the characters were a little flat and the writing workmanlike.
And the writing is workmanlike. Beard has obviously worked hard to write this novel, and I would not gainsay the achievement unreservedly, but the flat characters and straightforward plot coupled with a tendency to overuse passive voice in an attempt to sound mythic gives Beard’s writing a stodgy quality. Beard uses the traditional third-person for telling most of the story (some perspectives do fall into first) and likes to construct his sentences to ensure the story feels suitably mythic. For example, take this early scene the introduces the three primary characters:
Kohel was afraid, something he never was inside Haven; where his father reigned over everything important; where, by his father’s hand, Kohel ruled over everything else.
Nergei allowed himself a smile at his bully’s shame, but his happiness was short-lived, the smile fled his face, the feeling turned to skin-crawling fear when from behind him he heard Kohel’s voice.
And in front of him he heard the voice.
And from the east, and farther off to the west.
And from above, in the treetops, where he could not see. Kohel’s voice surrounded them, hemmed them into the clearing in a way that a dozen real Kohels never could have.
Luzhon cried out, begged Kohel to explain what was happening.
Notice the overuse of commas and semicolons to combine sentences. Sure, this is something any good writer should do on occasion, but Beard does it all the time. Entire paragraphs are made of just one sentence. Notice also the past tense forms of the verbs. Beard uses “begged” instead of “begs”, “never could have” instead of “could not.” The lack of active verbs, while initially great for getting the mythic tone of the novel, eventually began to grate on my nerves. The whole story read one of those scenes in a movie where the story segues into sepia, a device meant to indicate some past event that is outside the primary plotline. Give Beard props, he is consistent in his use of this style, and as a gamer playing D&D this is exactly the way I would want my dungeon master to relate the tale, but in a novel form, it frustrates after a while.
Thematically, the The Last Garrison is as you might expect. It is a story of bravery against overwhelming odds, a young girl finding her true calling as a warrior apart from men’s influence, the dangers of magic, and the heroism of an orphan boy. Nothing new here, just the good old comfort food.
Overall, I cannot recommend The Last Garrison except as shallow escapism. The story has potential, as does Beard as a writer, but it and he are not quite there yet. This had all the potential to be a really exciting story that uses familiar tropes and themes with just enough of a twist to be really entertaining. But the overuse of mythic tone, coupled with lack of depth in characters and plot make for a easy-to-read but mostly dull novel. Had Beard pared down the number of characters, given the story a more active voice, and added a few more twists and turns to his plot, he would have had a really good novel. As it stands The Last Garrison is decent reading for after you have turned your brain off for the day. At any other time, it is just annoying.