The Banished of Muirwood: 47North, August 2015, 438 pages, cover art by Magali Villeneuve. The Banished of Muirwood is the first volume in the Covenant of Muirwood trilogy. The heroine of the trilogy, Maia, is the only daughter of the king of Muirwood. Chapter One of The Banished of Muirwood consists of a flashback to Maia's youth, when she learned magic from a "Dochte Mandar" wizard, while her mother bore one of several stillborn children. The stillbirths placed Maia in line to be queen, but also left her father bitter and irrational. In Chapter Two, we see Maia as a young adult, effectively exiled by her father from the capital. She is sent on a mission with an assassin for a bodyguard, a mission which will put her in the path of other dangerous wizards and lead her to Naess, a place where it is a capital crime for a woman to learn magic.
Forge of Ashes: Paizo, June 2015, 387 pages, cover art by Eric Belisle. This is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game. Pathfinder books have made a strong showing to date in the Battle of the Books, consistently featuring a high level of writing. In Forge of Ashes, a female dwarf named Akina returns to her home after many years fighting as a mercenary. She is accompanied by Ondorum, who has taken a vow of silence. Akina is startled to see her own likeness on sculptures decorating many parts of the city. She learns that her brother has become an insensible drunk, her mother has disappeared and is presumed dead in the mines, and her former lover became obsessed with her in her absence. He is the source of the Akina sculptures, a revelation to which she does not take kindly.
The Battle: We start this bracket of the Battle of the Books with a contest between two high fantasy adventures. It's an interesting case study in what it takes to pull through the first round of BotB.
The opening round is first and foremost about pulling me into the story. The Banished of Muirwood has some writing quirks I wasn't crazy about, starting with the fact that the entire first chapter turns out jarringly to be a dream. But by the end of 25 pages, I have a pretty good sense of what's at stake for Maia, both internally and externally. Internally, she feels abandoned by her parents, and she loves to study magic but tradition says she shouldn't be permitted to do so because of her gender. Meanwhile, externally, her father has banished her and all the other magicians, triggering a series of large-scale conflicts. On the horizon, there is a potential conflict over Muirwood, the area Maia's family left when it was overrun by plants and animals in a case of nature gone berserk. All of these storylines make me want to keep reading.
In contrast, on a sentence-by-sentence level, I couldn't find a flaw in Forge of Ashes if I tried. Josh Vogt has an excellent flow to his prose, and is certainly a young writer to watch. Yet through 25 pages, the narrative of Forge of Ashes has not pulled me into the story so well as The Banished of Muirwood. I think the biggest problem is Vogt hasn't stopped to set the stage for me. Unlike The Banished of Muirwood, the opening section of Forge of Ashes shows no thoughts or flashbacks to Akina's past. There's not even a moment when Akina pauses to say anything like, "I wonder what Mom's up to." Rather, she just wanders into town and things happen without any preamble. For example, she is told her brother has been kicked out of his monastery and become a drunk, which has no impact on the reader, who is simply thinking, "Oh, she has a brother?"
Through 25 pages, we don't know why Akina left home, we don't know why she has now come back. We have little sense of what's at stake for her in this story. One supposes the story will involve looking for Akina's mother, but then, does Akina even care about her mother? The fact that Akina stayed away for ten years without so much as sending a post card suggests a less than ideal relationship, but so far the narrative hasn't actually told us so. Despite the strong prose, it's easier for me to stop reading Forge of Ashes after 25 pages, because I don't yet have even a vague sense of where Akina's story is headed.
THE WINNER: The Banished of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler
The Banished of Muirwood advances to the second round to face either Firesoul by Gary Kloster or The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
To see the whole bracket, click here.