A humble stable boy discovers powers that he was never aware of and suddenly he is swept up in an epic journey of swords and sorcery, friendship and betrayal, good and evil. It’s a familiar story to any of us, particularly fantasy aficionados, but it’s a tried-and-tested formula which successful authors can breathe life into and reinvigorate. Was Andrew Lashway able to do that with his debut novel, The Soul Forge, though?
The stable boy protagonist is your typical country bumpkin with a heart of gold. He lives on a farm, taken in by his farmer neighbors, and helps around the property and with the raising of Master Kimpchik’s daughter, the precocious eight-year old Ms. Anna (precocious is probably too generous. The brat singularly refers to Thomas as “stupid Stable Boy!” and kicks him repeatedly, even after rescuing her and her parents from near-certain death. It’s not cute, just obnoxious). This idyllic slice-of-pie life soon falls apart when Thomas discovers he has a knack for magic and is swept up in the fate of all living beings.
Thomas learns to channel his magical abilities and eventually takes up the sword, finding a mentor to train him, and picks up a bevy of companions along the way. He makes friends fast, particularly the ladies. I was surprised whenever one of these beauties was able to go a whole paragraph without winking at him. For a shy kid from the (supposed) backwater, he sure loves calling every woman he meets “sweetheart.” That said, we never really get to know any of these comrades past name, appearance and their subservience to Thomas.
I don’t want to wade too far into the plot but Thomas ends up travelling to the Elven and Dwarven Kingdoms in his efforts to understand just what is happening in the world and who exactly is behind it all. Now there are a few things which rubbed me the wrong way with this novel, although maybe that comes across a little harsher than I mean to be. You be the judge.
A stripling of a lad, fresh off the farm, with just a few hours of training under his belt, should not be able to hold his own in a swordfight against an experienced and skilful career soldier. Even if he is the Hero of Legend or some prophesied hero, it’s ridiculous. If you want to make it believable, then have him use some unexpected, underhanded tricks (sand in the eyes, kick to the groin, etc.) to avoid defeat, not simply by drawing upon memories of his friends or the little girl back home. I’m rolling my eyes back here!
Even worse, when escaping on horseback from some enemies at one point in the book, Thomas, who I remind you is a stable boy, is described as an “inexperienced” rider. How is that even possible? He looks after horses for a living! What else could he have been doing with those horses?
“You hurt…” Thomas choked out, a rage he had so rarely felt pouring through his blood, “one hair on that horse…”
Something else which riled me: why does this why this small farm which Thomas works upon need a stable at all? They’re not in the business of horse-breeding, and with only one other person on the farm who actually works, the size of the place wouldn’t demand a great number of horses either. Another thing, this farm is under an hour on horseback from The Capital too. There’s abundant farmland that close to the nation’s largest city? Where is the overflow from the city; the sprawl and the slums?
“When he reached the Capital, it became quite clear that they had no idea was going on in the countryside.”
Obviously danger intrudes upon the farm, as it always does, and yet somehow no guards from the centre of this kingdom, which is so nearby, are aware of the razing and pillaging taking place? I can understand the author requiring a suspension of belief for the reader, particularly in the realm of fantasy, but really?
One last thing (honest) which truly flabbergasted me came near the end at the titular Soul Forge–it’s not as exciting as it sounds–where some magical weapons are crafted for battle, including a bow. If you have a material specifically created to defeat certain enemies, you do not craft a bow with it, you craft the arrowheads with it! Come on!
Phew… Sorry if that all seemed really pedantic and pernickety. The novel is endearing in some ways; Thomas is more or less the hero most of us imagined ourselves as in our daydreams were we to be transported to such a world. It’s hard not to root for him in that respect. The final showdown between Thomas and his nemesis is a satisfying bout too, even if the tale does conclude afterwards a little too abruptly.
Andrew Lashway treads a path which we’re all familiar with in The Soul Forge but he never quite makes it his own. The supporting characters are never really fleshed out, especially the women, and knowing more of the history and mythology of the world in peril would have me care a great deal more.
It’s hard to dislike the plucky hero who comes from nothing, but I didn’t like him that much either this time. While every fantasy protagonist doesn’t need to be an embittered anti-hero–as seems to be the current trend–Thomas and his universe lack those extra layers of complexity and subtlety which were needed. While $0.99 is a steal for a fantasy novel of over 200 pages, I can’t recommend it for anyone apart from those who really have already gone through most other fantasy adventures already.