I'm not a great lover of Heroic Fantasy. Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber is probably my favourite single novel in the genre, but it spawned a whole string of sequels of ever-decreasing quality. Michael Moorcock has written novels, such as The War Hound and The World's Pain, which are as tightly plotted and logical as any SF novel. I adore the Lankhmar novels of Fritz Leiber, which are full of wit and charm. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Earthsea Cycle towers above any competitor.
But the rest of the wizards, swordsmen, elves, and goblins that are Tolkien's bastard offspring do nothing for me.
So when I realized that in reviewing Landmoor, I was reading a heroic fantasy, my heart sank just a little.
And to make matters worse, it's a print-on-demand book. I know little about POD, a publishing phenomenon that's become increasingly popular over the last decade. I envisaged POD as being essentially chapbooks, with lurid covers and amateurish line drawings.
But I was pleasantly surprised. Landmoor looks as good as any trade paperback published by a big publishing house. The big boys' advantages are in mass-market paperbacks and the promotional budget, but I suspect that in years to come, even that may change. The POD novel is here, and judging by this example, is in fine shape.
Landmoor is set in what seems at first a standard fantasy realm, where humans co-exist uneasily alongside the Drugaen and the Shae, to whom magic is a living, talking entity. There are three kinds of magic: earth, life, and forbidden magic. Wheeler doesn't elaborate too much on the differences, although forbidden magic is fairly self-evident.
If there are hints of elves in Wheeler's description of the Shae, then the closest analogy to the Drugaen, with their stubby fingers, combed beards and barrel chests, are dwarves.
At the centre of the novel's plot is Everoot—a healing plant that grows freely, but which, by the simple measure of not watering it, can be corrupted into Deathbane, a potent forbidden magic.
As the novel progresses, it becomes more interesting: the Shae in the distant past arrived from another world in a flying city; they have their own customs and mores. The richness and complexity of their society add to the complex political situation to be found in Landmoor, which I'll attempt to summarize:
Amongst the humans, years of internecine strife have in the past pitted coastal-dwellers against those living inland, region against region, and race against race.
Even factions formerly allied have turned against one another, as has happened with the forces who've combined to besiege the fortress city of Landmoor; each faction is played off the other by their Sorian aides. The Sorians are a small Shae faction; powerful, almost immortal, and obsessive plotters.
Thealos Quickfellow is a young Shae, maneuvered into rejecting the customs of his people by an opponent and his own naiveté; charged with treason, he flees, pursued by a squad of Shae warriors.
Taken prisoner by human mercenaries, Thealos escapes, helped by a mystery companion, Jaerod, a Sleepwalker, a Shae-trained human warrior. Arriving at the port city of Sol, Jaerod goes to a meeting while Thealos becomes involved in a tavern brawl, from which a young woman and a Drugaen help him escape.
The girl is affianced to one of the novel's villains: Thealos and she struggle with their mutual attraction, adding to the novel's tension.
Fearing retribution for their involvement in the brawl, Thealos's companions travel with him to Landmoor, but are ambushed by Drugaens. A knight whom they helped escape the tavern brawl, and who has followed them, now helps them in return, and frees the Drugaen's prisoner, a Shae called the Warder.
One by one the company grows, until there are seven: Thealos and another Shae, Jaerod, the companion, and another Sleepwalker, the knight, the girl, and the Drugaen: each has a part to play as they race against time, converging on the besieged city of Landmoor.
Although it's not signaled as the first of a series, the ending implies that there are sequels to come. There are no signs that there are other works forthcoming on the book jacket, or inside, which I found disappointing; I read this as a separate novel until the last page, and felt the end fizzled out. However, there are so many series that they've become the default, and single novels the exception.
There are so many characters, so many factions, that I'd really have liked a cast list, and some settings and characters could have been more clearly delineated.
In its favor, Landmoor has a gritty quality, and Wheeler's prose is dense and hard working. He doesn't infodump at the beginning of the tale, nor stop the story to explain the bigger world of which Landmoor is a part. Instead, he works it in as the story progresses, and in turn, the reader has to work hard as well. In this case, the reader gets out what they put in.
I'd recommend Landmoor to all devotees of heroic fantasy, and even to grouches like me, who are willing to be won over by a thoughtful, intelligent action story.