Scriber by Ben S. Dobson (2011)
When a group of rebels called the Burners launch a series of brutal attacks across the Kingsland, disgraced scholar Dennon Lark is pulled out of his self-imposed exile and back into the very search that sent him into hiding to begin with. His research into the kingdom’s lost history may just hold the truth behind the Burners’ strange sorcery—and explain why so many of those thought killed in the attacks have joined the rebels who destroyed their homes. But only the King’s infamous warrior niece Bryndine Errynson and her company of female soldiers trust him enough to help him find answers before the rebels burn the Kingsland to the ground.
Racing against time and pursued by forces beyond their understanding, Dennon and Bryndine may be the realm’s only hope—but in order to preserve the Kingsland’s future, they must first uncover its past.
Despite being firmly of the medieval European vein, Scriber is an epic fantasy that manages to deliver freshness, deftness, and a fair dose of gender sensitivity to the genre’s tropes. It moves from mystery/scavenger hunt to epic battle to morality tale but does it in an effective and seamless way.
What first drew me to it was the choice of Dennon Lark, a historian, as the narrator. A fitting choice given his profession, though he is far from the kind of protagonist that most epic fantasies require. Dennon spends far too much time being afraid of his own shadow. His cowardice is often mentioned in the book -– from his desire to hide from the world after a personal endeavor turns tragic to his fear of Sylla, the self-appointed bodyguard of Bryndine Errynson.
A counterpoint to him is Bryndine, niece to the King and generally shunned to Hester Prynne-like proportions as a blasphemer for taking up arms and leading a company of female soldiers. She is the story’s heroic trope, given bulk and battle ferocity to make her appear physically unattractive, but with a steadiness of character and purpose that made me cheer for her at every turn. Her actions are tolerated only because she is of noble blood and even among people she saves, she is neither admired nor thanked. Turn Bryndine male and the character loses much of its vulnerability and pathos.
I like how Mr Dobson gives us protagonists we can get behind and uses both Dennon and Bryndine to show different kinds of bravery, different kinds of battles, different kinds of heroes.
Even the warrior women are given nuanced roles. There are about twenty of them but the author knew how to write for them, how to introduce them to the reader so that you are never overwhelmed. Mr Dobson made sure that you paid attention to the right ones at the right times. One that particularly stood out was Wynne, with her hopefulness and desire for learning, and at the end of the book I really did feel as if I were part of this company.
I felt completely immersed in this world. Here, scribers like Dennon are tasked with recovering the kingdom’s forgotten history, lost during a Forgetting instigated by a King who had razed all books and knowledge to the ground. It’s a monumental task but one that Dennon approaches with passion and devotion, and snippets of all that he has discovered, as we ll as his thoughts, are revealed in brief passages before each chapter. But in spite of this, the world-building in Scriber is never bulky. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that every detail mentioned had something to contribute to the plot and wasn’t just included for flavor or scene-setting. (Let me know if I’m wrong.) Every little thing seemed to matter; nothing felt wasted.
I’m always up for a good series, but I’m a reader who is more impressed when a story wraps itself up satisfyingly in just one take. My only real concern with Scriber was how quickly the characters seemed to jump to conclusions while putting clues together. But that is little compared to how the story works itself to a glorious and emotionally-charged climax. Scriber ticks all the right boxes and reminds me that with indie releases like this, epic fantasy refuses to be just another tired and battle-worn genre.
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Band of Brothers, medieval zombies, scavenger hunts, underdogs, unsung heroes