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The Wounded Guardian by Duncan Lay

The Wounded Guardian by Duncan Lay
Book Name: The Wounded Guardian
Author: Duncan Lay
Publisher(s): Harper Voyager
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: January 31, 2010

Under the bright blue skies and Antarctic winds of an Australian winter, I happened across local fantasy author Duncan Lay enthusiastically undertaking a signing outside a bookstore.

Sleeves rolled up despite the chill; clearly this was no reclusive writer. This man meant business. He caught my eye as I passed.

‘Do you like reading?’ he asked, with a knowing smile.

It wasn’t long before we were chatting. He signed a book and I bought it. And only later did I reflect that as opening lines go, his was perfect. For who of us can resist answering that question?

Duncan Lay obviously likes reading. His first book, The Wounded Guardian, part of the Dragon Sword Histories series, is fantasy in the traditional sense and acknowledges much of what the genre has delivered before. Yet it also delights with twists upon the familiar and an array of interesting new fashions with which to dress the usual collection of characters.

The story revolves around a warrior named Martil. An outcast, of sorts, he is wandering the land of Norstalos when a chance encounter with a bandit leaves him as the carer of a 6-year-old girl, Karia. After promising to deliver her safely to her uncle in a distant town, the pair set off, only to be caught in the middle of a battle for the throne. For the fabled Dragon Sword that has kept the peace for centuries has been stolen, removed from Queen Merren’s care by her cousin, Duke Gello, as part of his plan to overthrow her. And somehow it ends up in the hands of our reluctant hero.

Now the chosen one, Martil must lead the girl, the Queen’s wizard, Barrett, and a lovable rogue, Conal, as they bid to save the Queen, the country and, perhaps later, the world.

The Bad News

Unfortunately the writing didn’t connect with me as I would have liked. Snappy dialogue was stifled in places by too many narrative and action beats, and there were a few too many passages of ‘telling’ and very little ‘showing’. Then there were the adverbs—and I’m a firm believer that the dialogue itself should always convey the emotion. Telling the reader how to read a particular line more often than not (he said frustratedly) can detract from their involvement in the story.

Admittedly these are trivial issues I see as more of an editorial failing for a first novel (where these things crop up) than anything else.

The only place I truly became unstuck with the style was when the point of view spilled between characters, often within the same scene, but occasionally within the same paragraph. A deliberate style choice perhaps (I’ve seen other celebrated writers do the same), but I’ll never understand the need for it. Any time you force a reader to stop and track back for clarification of who is thinking what then you’ve pulled them out of the story and momentum is lost.

Of course, I’m possibly being picky. What didn’t work for me might work for you, and in the end such things only slow progress rather than prevent it. Which is a good thing, because I found the story itself incredibly rewarding.

The Good News

A reluctant warrior. A Queen in trouble. A noble wizard. A magic sword.

Fantasy? Tick.

At face value there is nothing new here. But you’ve all heard about judging books and covers, right? Dive in to The Wounded Guardian and you’ll find chequered histories and human flaws, contributing to some fascinating and rather masterful ideas at play.

The noble wizard, for example, is young and brash, and noble only when it suits him. Far from being the atypical ancient mentor (although he does do a little of that in the background), he is instead the personification of a childlike crush—obsessed with the Queen and constantly daydreaming about the day he will win her heart.

Which isn’t going to happen any time soon, because this is a Queen light on charm from the outset. In an unenviable position, working with lecherous nobles and a cousin who wants her power, she is cold and calculating, regarding even her saviours as simply as tools to manipulate for her own end.

And then there’s our reluctant hero, Martil. Reluctant not because he’s a good man who values peace over violence, or has Han Solo-style mercenary morals, but simply because he’s so good at war that it’s led him to be branded the ‘Butcher of Bellic’, responsible for the massacre of an entire city of men, women and children in a past war.

A war criminal as your hero? That’s brave. And sometimes uncomfortable. It also ties in well with the underlying theme that we are not dealing with black and white issues, but rather the all-too-human 50 shades of grey in between. Martil does his best to avoid battle, but sometimes he cannot help himself. He is a man constantly on the edge of rage and it does not take much to tip him to violence. At which point he loses himself completely, only to stagger back from the bloody aftermath and vow never again.

The three leads provide the obligatory love triangle. There is banter and fighting and backstabbing, and several times you will find one, or even all, distinctly unlikeable. But they are always interesting.

However, the best relationships in the story are actually found outside this destructive triangle.

The magic sword is a great touch. Seen as a talisman, its power has maintained peace in Norstalos for so long.

Yet ironically this power is little more than symbolic. It can bestow upon its chosen wielder the ability to cut down armoured men top to toe. But it does not do so lightly. Its real strength lies in its rallying call, bringing people to the cause—yet the more it is bloodied in battle the less it will adhere to the will of the wielder. To the point where it will kill the man who cannot prove himself worthy and simply wait for another.

Consequently Martil’s relationship with this sword, and therefore his constant struggle with his own violent nature, is a fascinating and perilous one.

Yet the heart of the story lies with Martil and the young girl, Karia, and their journey together. It is a relationship skilfully built, with the author simply and effectively conveying the tricky and often tiresome nature of dealing with young children.

The constant questions. The weight of responsibility. Even the lack of sleep!

Complicate things further with Martil’s past—to all intents and purposes he is a murderer of children—and you have what transpires to be a fascinating conflict between them, and one that develops beautifully throughout the course of the book.

All told, I enjoyed the time I spent with The Wounded Guardian. It sets its stall out as traditional fantasy, but took some welcome detours along the way and left me thinking long after I finished. That’s always the sign of a good story. Count me in for the next adventure!


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