It’s pretty easy to pigeonhole a genre because of the similarity of a lot of the stories that you find in it. It’s even easier to sneer at if it’s from a section of the bookshop that you don’t frequent very often. For instance, the plot of The Horse Lord, Peter Morwood’s debut novel, runs thusly:
Aldric Talvalin returns home to find that his entire family has been murdered. He gets taken under the wing of a wizard who teaches him swordplay, some magic, and a few other survival skills. He then undertakes his revenge upon the sorcerer who destroyed his home.
That’s a pretty good summary of a LOT of fantasy written in the 1980s, I think (It pretty much summarises all three Star Wars trilogies, as well). In a lot of ways, The Horse Lord is a bog-standard revenge fantasy that leads its protagonist on to something a bit bigger than what they want to achieve, similar to so many other escapist thrillers. What separates it from so many others, though, is the wry tone of Mr Morwood’s writing, some solid worldbuilding that mixes a standard Northern European setting with some mediaeval Japanese culture, as well as its knowing commentary on the Cold War that was being enacted in the real world at the time of writing. It also has a few jabs at some fantasy story conventions while enacting them itself. And it has an intriguing main character.
Aldric is a young hero who has been brought up with blacks and whites and simple answers finding himself adrift in a world that relies on shades of grey and nuance. It’s commented on by other characters how he has led a fairly sheltered upbringing as the youngest son of an old and honourable family. What makes him an interesting protagonist is the way he develops a pragmatic view of the world and manages to protect his honour and still fulfil oaths to his family and his king. He also makes an interesting transformation from a somewhat arrogant and snooty youth to a competent and accomplished young man.
He is also a skilled warrior and demonstrates it frequently. However, he doesn’t take part in any pitched battles. Where another young hero might have shown their prowess on the field, Aldric concerns himself with avoiding combat: he’s not squeamish but he dislikes taking life. It doesn’t stop him from being an effective killing machine when the need strikes, but there is a distinct lack of battle sequences in a series that delves into the conflict between nations and factions. Much of this novel’s action takes place in hallways, caves, forests… dark, shadowy places that suit the clandestine nature of Aldric’s plot for revenge. It also suits the realpolitik themes that Morwood is pushing throughout this novel and its sequels. It’s terrific to read a spy novel set in a fantasy milieu but sometimes the intrigue and the unravelling of conspiracies and meaning from events feels a little laboured. But I feel that way about a lot of Len Deighton or John le Carre’s work as well, and don’t get me started on the wheels within wheels within wheels of Steven Brust’s otherwise-wonderful Vlad Taltos books. It’s a personal failing, I’m sorry.
As I said, Aldric discovers that what happened to his family was only a small part of a larger plot against his kingdom and in the later books (there are three sequels and Mr Morwood has been teasing a fourth for almost thirty years now) he takes a trip into the heart of his enemy’s territory and learns just how much of a thorn in their side he has become…
You can find out more about Peter Morwood at https://petermorwood.tumblr.com/