Priest by Matthew Colville – Fantasy-Faction’s SPFBO Winner
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I was sent 27 Self Published novels to read as part of Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. The process of the SPFBO is that 10 Fantasy blogs around the world make their way through a total of 267 Self Published books and each selects a champion. Once a champion has been selected they are entered into phase two of the competition which will see each novel being scored out of 10. A winner will be announced once all scores have come in and have been totalled.
For us here at Fantasy-Faction we had 3 books out of the 27 that stood head and shoulders above the rest and could have been very easy to name as our Champion: The Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington, Exile by James Cormier and the book I am reviewing today, Priest by Matthew Colville.
Priest kicks off by introducing us to, you guessed it, a Priest – named Haden. Initially, Haden is a bright, reasonable fellow who looks to avoid violence and noticeably shies away from talk of sex; as one may expect from a Priest. That said, clues are dropped that suggest Haden hasn’t always been quite so devoted to prayer and doing good. One of the earliest scenes in the novel features him finding out about a girl who has been locked up for fear that she is possessed and that the possession is dangerous and incurable. Suspecting she is being mistreated he walks straight into the hostile situation – Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator style – and rescues the terrified young girl. Despite the resistance, it is evident that Haden would have done what was necessary to secure her freedom. Once Haden has completed the rescue though we see his softer side. He comforts the girl who, justifiably, no longer trusts men readily and allows her to stay at the strange Inn that he purchased and has never done anything with. Indeed, as the novel progresses one of its strengths is that we know very little about Colville’s main character and that his narrative plays upon this fact time and time again.
Whatever it is that lies within Haden’s past, when one of the nine Knights of The Green Order – protectors of the forest – is reported to have died, he becomes the Bishops choice to investigate the circumstances. This quest will not be quite as easy as it sounds and there is a reason that the Bishop is being selective as to who he sends. The Knights that Haden must seek have lived isolated for thousands upon thousands of years. They live in a forest that is full of dangers and is the kind of place that plenty have entered and yet none have ever returned. To make matters worse, there is a clock ticking over Haden’s head. A village that has relied upon the Knights for protection is about to be marched upon by a deadly army it cannot hope to defeat alone…
Right now you may be thinking that this novel is beginning to sound familiar and maybe even a little bit cheesy: a reluctant quest, a rescue attempt, a forest no one returns from, Knights – it’s all very 1970s, isn’t it? Well, yes it is. But for me the magic of Priest was that that storyline and style of adventure is so much like what we’d expect reading Arthurian tales or the Fantasy that followed Tolkien and yet the characterisation and prose were far more reminiscent of an author such as Richard Morgan (some may say Joe Abercrombie, but I do feel that’d be a lazy way of saying ‘matter of fact’ and ‘gritty’). What I mean by this is that authors such as Morgan, Abercrombie, Pratchett and so on are very good at throwing in one-liners and matter of fact comments into their fantasy novels that help connect the dots to real life situations and Colville really shone with his ability to do this too. The very best examples come when Haden runs into a minstrel named Renaldo. The back and forth is by far the strongest part of the novel (for me) and showcases the author’s talents for dialogue. It’s just simple, but gratifying lines such as: “I confess I rather appreciate the idea of a man pursuing me for a year. No epic tragedy ever featured a man who was pursued for a day, or, thirty-two weeks,” one after the other.
Speaking of Renaldo takes me onto another of Colville’s strengths: his characterisation and building of Fantasy species. Whether you wants Giants, Orcs (kinda-almost), Fae, Dragons, Dragon hybrids, headless Knights – you’ll find them all within Priest and the way that Colville presents them they never feel excessive or carbon copies. In-fact, it felt quite refreshing for me to read a fantasy novel that was unashamedly influenced by Tolkien in its episodic style. Almost every couple of chapters we meet a new character or new situation that our Priest must talk/fight his way out of and the range of personalities presented by those who offer the danger/challenge keeps things constantly interesting and never a slog.
All that said, if there is one big weakness to Priest its roots would probably lie within the fact that Colville is trying so hard to showcase influences from so many distinctly different authors too. The Patrick Rothfuss like mystery, the Joe Abercrombie / Richard Morgan prose, the J.R.R. Tolkien episodes, the characters recognisable as warped versions from series such as Harry Potter, Farseer, The Old Kingdom and so on lead to a lot of inconsistencies, primarily in Haden’s character. One moment Haden feels like Dumbledore and then the next like Logan Nine Fingers. This goes beyond who he is talking to or his mood – it genuinely leaves you wondering what hat he will be wearing at any specific time and guessing what he is about to do difficult. The result of all this is that once his actions have been narrated it can jar you quite drastically.
There are also a few cheesy scenes and tropes that I’ve come to really dislike in Fantasy novels. To point out one of these, I look no further than Colville’s version of the virgin who suddenly becomes master seducer. Again, this is far from unique to Colville’s work, but it seems that a lot of authors feel that to avoid their women coming across as sweet and innocent damsels they should have them throw themselves at the male characters. This, I guess, can work, but when the woman is a virgin / chastised and has only just met the guy a few hours ago it has you rolling your eyes and shaking your head.
Backing off my negativity though, I have to say that as a complete work, Priest not only surprised me, but really impressed me. When I started the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off I was expecting to find a lot of less well done versions of Fantasy novels already out there. Priest is a novel that felt unique to me – I can honestly say that I’ve not read a novel like it. The amount of influences that have gone into it and the extent of the twisting and playing around with tropes that Colville has done makes it a reading experience I doubt will be repeated anytime soon. For that reason I feel as if it makes a very good ‘Champion’ to put forward in Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and to challenge the other books that my fellow bloggers have put forward.