This is an in-depth book review for The Wordsmiths and the Warguild by Hugh Cook, the second book in the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. This book was marketed in the US as The Questing Hero and The Heroes Return (2 volumes). ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD!
I read Wizard War, AKA The Wizards and the Warriors (US vs. UK release) when I was about 14-15 years old, and instantly fell in love with it. It depicted a gritty, realistic fantasy world. Unlike the more popular fantasy stories of the time, such as Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms, the characters felt like real people with ambiguous morals and real life issues, who also happened to live in a world with magic, dragons, and strange monster races. The world the book depicted was a post-apocalyptic one, in which magical artifacts and ruins of a bygone age still littered the landscape, ready to cause trouble for unsuspecting people or allowing others to make a power grab.
This book, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild (I actually read the two volume US release), is the sequel. I had also read this book many years ago, but did not remember it well. This is the story of Togura Poulaan, the young son of a baron in the downtrodden kingdom of Sung, as he goes on a quest to recover a magical artifact, for both riches and to save his true love who has been trapped inside of a magical pocket dimension known as The Odex. The events of this book happen on the periphery of the events in the first book, to the extent that you will be quite confused in places if you do not recall the events of that book.
For example, at one point Togura is captured by a group of soldiers outside of Castle Vaunting in Lorford. These soldiers do not speak his language, so he has no idea what they are doing. Are they the army of the ruler of Castle Vaunting, Prince Comedo? Then, seemingly at random, all hell breaks loose and the entire army goes insane and begins gouging their own eyes out, and killing one-another. These events make sense to those who recall the events of Wizard War: the siege of Castle Vaunting, and the wizards breaking the siege by using the Mad Jewels. But even Togura himself has no idea what is happening, he simply survives out of sheer luck and flees from the situation. Readers might wonder what the hell that was all about if the events of the first book are not rather fresh in their memory.
While I did not hate this book, I found it problematic, both as a stand-alone story and as a sequel to the first book of the series. In fact, to call it a sequel is not even accurate. It was more of a playful side-story set in the world of the first novel. The author seemed to enjoy the idea of telling the tale of a person caught up in the wake of great, world-changing events, but who themselves had no desire to be a part of those events (or indeed any insight into those events most of the time). Parts of the book were a rehashing of the events of the first book from an outside perspective (only one main character from the first book appears in this sequel). It’s an interesting idea, but really does not pay many dividends due to the way it was approached.
From the beginning sentence of the book, the author makes it clear that this is going to be a deeply sarcastic and cynical story. The tone of this book is nothing like Wizard War. The first chapter details what a comically terrible place The Kingdom of Sung is, with a cartoonishly incompetent king who nobody respects, the king’s hulking, obese, troll-like daughter, cities falling in on themselves due to miners digging beneath the buildings, and much of the world refusing to even acknowledge Sung is a kingdom at all. The author sets the tone, and the tone is outlandish comedy.
We meet the “hero” of the story, Togura Poulaan. Togura is not a reluctant hero, like Bilbo Baggins. He is not a true hero, striving to do the right thing, like Frodo. He is not an everyman pulled into great events, like Harry Potter. He is not even an antihero; though he is guided mostly by self-interest, it is not at the expense of others. He is simply a hapless, oafish, lazy boy who wants only to follow the path of least resistance and have an easy life. He wants to belong to something, to be seen as a person who belongs, as long as doing so isn’t a lot of work. This is one of the first problems I have with the story: Togura is hard to like. I want to root for him, because he’s the protagonist, but he’s just kind of a shithead.
Togura, early in the book, witnesses his “true love,” Day Suet, being cast into a magical artifact known as The Odex. He is told that if he recovers the artifact that controls The Odex, known as The Index (the similarity between the words “The Odex” and “The Index” was clearly intentional for the sake of comedy), he could recover Day from the artifact, along with a number of riches. However, only briefly later, we find that Togura would be perfectly willing to instead marry another random member of the Suet family he meets only that night and leave Day to her fate. Only chance bad luck drives the story forward and forces our “hero” to pursue his quest… kind of.
This is a constant theme throughout the book. Togura is a very passive character who has both the best and worst luck of any person alive. He spends nearly the entirety of the book in dire peril, going from one bad situation to another, with only brief respites in which he manages to make all the wrong choices. He flees his murderous half brother only to be captured by a strange cult-like swamp civilization. He manages to escape that group only to find himself lost in uninhabited territory. He finds his way back to civilization only to get thrown off of a ship to sea serpents. Some of these events lead him closer to the quest outlined in the early chapters (retrieving the Index), but most do not. In fact, when Togura finally finds the Index, he doesn’t even realize he found it and he certainly wasn’t looking for it. He only keeps it because it seems like something he could sell.
So I felt like the story was a bit haphazard and lacked focus. On the positive side, I enjoyed getting an alternative perspective on the world of the first book. This book was just as gritty, if not more-so, reiterating how more primitive civilizations would necessarily view life differently than we do. It is something lacking from most fantasy stories, which focus on heroic deeds, the dichotomy of good and evil, polished armor and lordly, attractive characters. This book features low characters, people who live their lives in squalor and filth, a world where life is often short and mean, and where people maybe don’t know what they are doing much of the time and just try to get along. I did appreciate all of that, but combined with the comedic tone and unlikable characters, it did leave me feeling a bit disconnected.
I feel like there was an underlying structure of mythology in this story that eluded me. Several events in the story did have a mythological tone, and the sprawling, haphazard adventure did seem a bit reminiscent of Odysseus’s epic journey, albeit in a ridiculous sort of way. At one point, Togura meets a man with the head and horns of a bull. This fact goes uncommented by the others in the scene. Was this a reference to the Greek mythological minotaur? If so, the reference was lost on me. This character is one of the only people to show Togura selfless kindness, and is in fact one of the only likable characters in the book.
I feel I must include a trigger warning for trans or intersex people. There is a scene in the book that perhaps does not age well, in which Togura becomes the slave of a primitive tribal people. He eventually earns the right to marry one of their women, and chooses one who has been inexplicably outcast from the other women, but whom has shown him kindness and affection. On their wedding night, he discovers the reason: she is trans or perhaps intersex (the description is a bit vague in the story). Togura’s reaction to this discovery is not kind, and the character is then discarded from future events.
This was a fast read. I blew through the book (both books, since it was the US version) in just a couple of days. Overall, had this been the first of the series rather than a sequel (or side-story, really), I probably would not have continued to read the rest of the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. But, I am glad I did read it and will continue with the series, because of my love of the first book. I have already started the next book in the series, and am happy to report that Cook returns to the more serious tone of the first novel. And, the main character in the next book is mentioned often in this one, so I do think it is worth the read. I am certain the events will tie in, somehow.