Shawn Speakman is no stranger to the world of speculative fiction. The owner of popular online bookstore The Signed Page and webmaster to many authors, including Terry Brooks and Naomi Novik, Speakman has become a well-known presence online and personal friend to many authors. In 2009, Speakman was diagnosed with cancer. He beat it, and it is currently in remission, but his lack of health insurance left him with $200,000 in medical bills. In an attempt to resolve his financial situation, Speakman created Grim Oak Press.
Good cause, good book
Now, with the help of many generous authors—including Sanderson, Brooks, Rothfuss, Lawrence, Hearne, Grossman, and many more of the best authors—Grim Oak is releasing Unfettered, which may well be the greatest anthology in the history of fantasy. Speakman also used Grim Oak Press to self-publish his own novel, The Dark Thorn. The combination of sales between these two books should hopefully reduce his medical debts.
While a good cause might be reason enough for me to buy The Dark Thorn, it is hardly reason to actually read it. Like so many of you, I’m wary of self-published authors. Yet the combination of the incredible artwork by Todd Lockwood and the intriguing premise of The Dark Thorn were enough to convince me to give it a shot—a decision I have not regretted. From the first page, Speakman’s compelling blend of urban and epic fantasy drew me in and refused to let me go.
Tale of two worlds
When the Roman Empire brought Catholicism to the British islands, they encountered a world that clashed with their beliefs in every possible way: the world of the fey. The ensuing war eventually forced the fey to retreat to the world of Annwn, where they still live. Their world, however, is still linked to our own through a series of seven portals. These portals are guarded by seven knights, the Yn Saith, who each possess a magical weapon to aid them in preventing anyone to cross.
Richard is one of these knights. He is in charge of the portal that hides in the forgotten depths of old Seattle, in the northwestern corner of the United States. When Richard discovers that the old war between humans and fey is brewing anew, he enters Annwn—accompanied by a young man, Bran—to discover what is going on.
Combining genres and settings
From its start in the basements and streets of Seattle, The Dark Thorn jumps directly into the action, luring the reader in. With a wonderfully creative magic system, Speakman introduces the urban fantasy side of his story. This magic system combines many mythologies and legends—Arthurian tales in particular have a major part to play in The Dark Thorn—with both Catholicism and present day life. Then, as the story progresses through the portals and into Annwn, the intriguing world-building is seamlessly connected to the story, adding epic fantasy to the urban tale.
High-paced and brimful of suspense, The Dark Thorn is a story-driven novel of the best caliber. The many fights and battles bring a reader to intriguing locations, from the streets of Seattle to the mountains of a well-designed fictional world, and from mystical forests to the catacombs beneath the Vatican in Rome. Throughout the many enthralling battle scenes, The Dark Thorn successfully combines conventions of the epic and urban genres with original and creative innovations. This is a page-turner that I had trouble putting down.
No time for foreshadowing
The Dark Thorn is not a novel without flaws, however. While its pace is its greatest asset, it is also its greatest flaw. The focus on the action, with captivating fights and battle sequences, leaves little room for proper foreshadowing. Unfortunately, that means that what should be the best twists come as a complete surprise. Don’t get me wrong; I want twists to be surprising, but when the elements introduced in these twists have to be explained afterwards, the strength of the story is significantly reduced.
On top of that, the characters are hit-and-miss. Or rather, only two of them are hits. Unfortunately, I found the other characters to be dull, cheesy, and stereotyped. Bran is a twenty-year-old who is treated by all other characters as a twelve-year-old and definitely has the stubbornness to match. Deirdre, a princess in Annwn, can only think about the arranged engagement she’s trying to escape and her infatuation toward Richard. Wizards are mysterious people who manipulate events to serve their agenda, and Catholic cardinals are power-hungry, self-possessed hypocrites.
On the other hand, the main protagonist Richard is an intriguing, complex, morally ambiguous character. His viewpoints are skillfully written, his decisions are relatable, and he is both likable and repulsive. The fairy Snedeker is equally ambiguous and absolutely hilarious. His snarky comments and his unending habit of giving people silly nicknames make for some of the best moments in The Dark Thorn.
Why should you read this book?
All in all, The Dark Thorn is a more-than-decent debut. It’s far from perfect, but the fascinating use of mythology, the inventive world-building, authentic settings, and gratifying action are reason enough to make this a must-read for any fan of both urban and epic fantasy. Of course, helping a fellow genre fan in need should provide a valid enough excuse to give The Dark Thorn a chance. And you can now preorder a gorgeous hardcover edition of the book on Speakman’s website!