Reviewed by Hannah Vernon
Contest. A vicious sounding word, carrying connotations of conflict, destruction. And that was how I found this novel to be.
The reader is introduced immediately to Theo, a stowaway, confined to a trunk in the “frigid mountain”s, escaped from Rigol but confined instantly to a carriage and the company of Lorsik, clad only in thin garments that, receiving the slightest breath of wind, leave him “leached” of “any warmth.”
I have read countless books when the protagonist is cold, several of these being, like Theo, a product of stowing away, either forcibly or by some undiscovered choice. Why, therefore, is Theo any different to the pantheon of pre-existing heroes confined to a trunk in the opening chapter of his story?
It is because of the writer. Troy Clem has, within the opening page, with only the title and its connotations present to form opinions by, introduced a conflict that, whilst not proving to be the central thread of a plot that progresses to physical tournaments before spectators numbering in their thousands for the honour of kingship, adds a depth to the story that is often not recognised. Theo himself is facing a contest, the contest of embarking on a new journey as a stowaway, significant because in this position, he would be equipped with nothing.
Clem reveals that, in his world, whale oils and muskets have replaced the ancient swords and flame, but Theo’s life as he once knew it has been replaced by nought at all. This compels the reader to place themselves in his position, to truly realise his situation, with makes Clem’s novel far more interesting.
As the reader, what would you do?
You are confronted, alone and with limited possessions, with a world of competitions for power that, according to civilised means of succession appear to you injust, and yet you are compelled to embrace these customs all the same. Meanwhile, besides facing your own struggles that have rendered you friendless and comfortless, the world that you have not even grown accustomed to is changing. Powers lie within him uncharted, but greater forces still linger in this new and fearsome world, forces that challenge all that he knows and lead him to consider whether leaving his early companion was really worth the war that has ensued after all…
I was instantly attracted to this novel when invited to review it, for the contest theme called to me. It was reminiscent of A Game of Thrones and its subsequent Television Series, and so I was eager to wonder whether the conflict and complexity would enthral me similarly.
I was not at all disappointed. Clem has a beautiful way of capturing not only the central contest, but the contest raging within a relatively ordinary, believable character – fantastical powers aside, not to spoil anything! – who has to learn to challenge his own battles and fears. This not only brings an emotional weight to Clem’s story, nor adds complexity on a scale with other fantasy fiction, but provides the reader with an anchor point to the modern world, where, even though we too can find our own magic in our own, sometimes less glorious universe, there is still a parallel to be drawn with the thirst for power and the isolation, imploring us to realise Clem’s true message: in beauty and magic, there is also lust, deceit and violence that, in our world too, threaten to undermine all that we, the Theo’s of our story, have built.