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Basic info:

Author: M.A. Ray

Genre: epic fantasy

Length: 201 pages

Available: Amazon

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services (December 2013)

MY RATING: 4 stars

Once the land of Rothganar ran on magic, on an industrial scale. Then it all went away. In the prologue to her debut novel, M.A. Ray provides a glimpse into this cataclysmic event. There are robed men and armored men and a stone that glowed with runes.

Then she turns our attention to some years later, to a town called Thundering Hills. The inhabitants are all elves, with one exception. And this exceptional inhabitant is having the worst day of his teenage life. Dingus Xavier is a half-elf, and his full-blooded neighbors have gathered under a tree to hang him. The cover art reflects how Dingus is feeling at this moment rather well. There are some complications, however. First of all, Dingus is a tall lad, so tall in fact that the townsfolk have problems lynching him properly. The second is the tree itself. Or perhaps I should say herself. We don’t get a particularly clear picture of what she is exactly, but the spirit living in the tree–I imagine her as an angry dryad out of Greek myth–does her best to undermine the lynching. Dingus is her friend after all.

The third complication is called Eagle Eye. We see more of him later in the book, and his wife, both of whom were in their younger days famous adventurers. The details are a bit hazy, but they carry weight in Thundering Hills. (On the bright side, M.A. Ray is good about not infodumping. Hardly at all.) Which leaves me to wonder how stupid the townsfolk were for hanging the resident retired badass hero’s grandson in a dryad’s tree. (The answer: quite stupid indeed.)

And the fourth and greatest complication of all appears. Vandis Vail is the Head of the Knights of the Air. He is compelled by the goddess Akeere to rescue the lad and take him away as his squire. This I figure does not spoil the story much. The protagonist does not die in a tree in Chapter One. Akeere has unspecified plans for Dingus. Vandis shuffles the half-hanged half-elf teenager off to get him patched up.

Much of the rest of the novel involves Dingus following Vandis about. They have a number of adventures along the way, and we get to see some of Rothganar. The Knights are not a wealthy order, not what I would usually think of as a knightly order with plate armor and horses (there are no horses apparently in Rothganar). What they are instead are a loose fellowship of traveling adventurers who do good as they see fit, tell stories (one of my favorite aspects of the novel are the stories, and it’s a good way to do worldbuilding), and spread the word of their goddess. The last of their tasks is helped by her close association with the god of beer. Where the Knights have their waystations, there is always a chapel dedicated to her companion deity.

The bigger story is a conflict between the Knights and their adversaries the Order of St. Aurelius, which is based in the rival realm of Muscoda. The Aurelians are closer to what I think of as a military-religious order, like the medieval Templars. They are led by two monks, Fathers Krakus and Lech.

But only hints of that conflict appear in the novel. The main story is Dingus and Vandis traveling together. Dingus is traumatized by the lynching, naturally, and slowly recovers under Vandis’s gentle prodding. He shows himself to be a morally good if passive character who is overcoming his past and looking to the future.

Hard Luck is a fast-paced, enjoyable read for fans of epic fantasy that has a more heroic bent. It deviates from the traditional slow start that I associate with epic. After a short prologue, Dingus is faced with a life-threatening situation that Vandis, quickly pulls him out of. The prose is straightforward and often frank (there is a bit of crude language but it’s not gratuitous), which I found refreshing. In the general plot, I am reminded a bit of David Eddings, though her plotting is tighter than his (and Dingus whines rather less than Garion did in his youth). Fans of Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, and Patrick Rothfuss might find something immediately attractive in her outcast protagonist and the harsh situation that the world has thrust upon him.

I have only a few, minor complaints about the novel. The teenage protagonist remains passive through the first half of the novel, but his recovery from the traumatic life he left behind is dealt with realistically and sympathetically. Dingus does not shrug off his trauma but deals with it, which does take time. By the end, he is on the road to recovery (pun intended). The novel does end rather abruptly for my taste, but there is more to read in the series, so I will be writing more about Dingus and his adventures here on Borrowed Worlds.

If after reading Hard Luck you’d like to read more, M.A. Ray has released a number of shorts on her website. “Invisibly Yours” retells the first chapter of Hard Luck from Moira’s point of view (and it is a deep POV, if you ever wanted to read a story from a tree’s POV–well, she’s not quite The Giving Tree). I highly recommend it. “The Worm of Shirith” is the story of Dingus’s maternal grandfather and his encounter with a dragon in the days before the magic died.