Format: paperback, self published, 2016
Reading Time: about 8 hours
Benjamin Ashwood, AC Cobble’s debut novel, was released in 2016, the same year that Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen and Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames were released, also debut novels, so comparisons by me are inevitable. However, Benjamin Ashwood has not gotten the review exposure that The Crimson Queen or The Path of Flames have, so finding reviews from other sites was a challenge. Fortunately I was able to find a couple for reference. After the reference reviews, I’ll have thoughts of my own, and as always, expect a few spoilers to appear.
From the back cover of Benjamin Ashwood: “Epic Fantasy at its best. This classic swords and sorcery tale is inspired by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. If you liked them, you will love Benjamin Ashwood.
Life is simple in Ben’s small town until an attack brings the arrival of exciting strangers straight out of a story. Before Ben understands what is happening, he embarks on a dangerous journey to help his friends. A mage, demons, thieves and assassins are just a few of the perils he will face while trying to make it to safety.
But things aren’t always what they seem and safety is a fragile concept when the destructive behaviors of the powerful are exercised unchecked. In Ben’s world – like our own – political, economic and military might create a system to keep the elite in power at the expense of the common man. As the series unfolds and Ben’s knowledge and skill grows, he will have to decide if he wants to live within the system, flee from it or break it.”
The first review comes from Leony Henry of Booknest.eu, who states “It has a nice action-packed opening, with our hero the farmboy Benjamin helping his village folk battle a demon attacking their village. Shortly after, a strange group shows up, featuring a stern mage lady, a blademaster, an affable rogue and a noble girl with her maid. One can see the Wheel of Time influence, but it didn’t feel derivative at all…the fighting scenes, action, adventures, political intrigue, journeys, city and market scenes are top notch quality and the book is a solid page turner. One great thing about this story is, the main protagonist is just a simple brewer from some backwater village. He has no special powers, no prophecies, no magic. He is not a chosen one or savior. He listens to his mentors and learns skills with hard work and daily practices. This was quite inspirational stuff, no special powers coming out of thin air, but with disciplined work and dedication. I really liked this about the story.”
Leona also provides more insight with “However, as fun as it was to read, Benjamin Ashwood has quite a few issues…for one, I found the female characters weak and nondescript for the most part. Amelie is quite flat, even though she is supposed to be important. Lady Towaal had potential in the beginning, but she is mostly absent and hardly talks…way too modern vocabulary sours the experience quite often…I could overlook those, but then the phrases like “frugal lifestyle” and “tax dollars” sticking out like a sour thumb made that impossible…another issue I had was the girls throwing themselves at Ben. There was one one night stand sex scene, which came out of nowhere and served absolutely no purpose, left me scratching my head.”
The second review comes from The Genre Minx, who says “The supporting characters were a hoot! Now they did have their super skills but that was appropriate as they were the teachers in this story. His travel companions all have their own secrets and Ben spends quite a bit of time trying to piece figure out where their loyalties lay and how they fit together…Along the way there is death and loss. Ben has never truly had to consider or face the realities of what it meant to fight, what being a hero was truly about. He had spent so much time as a child listening to stories of hero’s that he never considered what the downside was. I loved watching Ben’s character develop and seeing him struggle with his humanity was a breath of fresh air so to speak.” What Minx didn’t like was a lack of detail in the worldbuilding.
The first thing I’m going to talk about is the marketing of the book. The name itself is so plain and uninspiring that it could be the title of a romance novel or an action adventure like Jack Reacher. It could even be a western! Also, just a suggestion, but if you’re going to drop names on the back of your book like Tolkien and Jordan and compare yourself to them, you’re putting a lot of pressure to measure up to those lofty standards, and probably setting yourself up for failure.
Cobble freely admits that Benjamin Ashwood is a farmboy sword & sorcery trope. The beginning of the story has Ben and his fellow townsmen hunting down a demon. Despite the fact that demons are another well-worn trope, this introductory scene does a great job of delivering tension during the hunt and demon encounter. A group of strange travelers show up to help, and the story turns to one of travel and adventure. I can definitely see the Eye of the World influence here.
However, as the story progresses, Cobble begins to lose his way. The places Ben travels to are described in enough detail, and the plot is fairly straightforward, but the tension evaporates as the group meanders from city to city. The addition of a young thief to the party, Renfro, makes no sense and his acceptance by others in the group is highly suspect. And the book might as well have the “farmboy goes to a school to train” trope added to the list of tropes, because a large part of the story involves Ben training with a skilled swordsman in the group.
The worst part related to pacing and plot, however, is a sequence in the last third of the book detailing Ben’s brewing efforts and his concern about fending off rivals. The section completely drags and I struggled to get through it, as it was boring and uninteresting. Spoiler Alert – skip if necessary – finally at about the 370 page mark, things start to pick up again as tension makes its way back into the story, when Ben’s benefactor leads a squad of armed men to take on their rival, only to be ambushed. I saw the ambush coming, although I will admit that I didn’t see who would be leading it. The action ratchets up as Ben races to save Amelie. The problem for me is that this sequence should have happened 100 pages earlier in the story. Benjamin Ashwood ends with a cliffhanger, which you may love or hate depending on your take. Personally, I felt there was way too much padding in the story to necessitate ending on a cliffhanger.
Their are some other missteps along the way. Ben’s traveling companions all have mysterious backstories, and Cobble sheds little light on where their skills or powers come from. I get that the characters are deliberately evasive, but there’s almost nothing revealed by the end of this first book. Also, Cobble’s prose is not great, incorporating a “telling” rather than “showing” style that avoids detail and makes character actions and interactions unbelievable. Cobble also has a nasty habit of using modern terminology to turn a phrase, as Leona Henry points out above. Text such as “assured mutual destruction”, “what makes the man tick” and “no way!” are so awful that the real world intrudes and it kills the fantasy vibe.
In conclusion I blew through Benjamin Ashwood quickly because I was suffering from a cold and couldn’t do much else but read, but it was a struggle at times to get through what is a tediously boring story, except for the beginning and ending. The back cover comparisons to Tolkien and Jordan are ludicrous, and Benjamin Ashwood doesn’t even come close to approaching the high standards set by contemporaries The Crimson Queen or The Path of Flames. On his website Cobble, who mentions several times the amount of time he puts into marketing, proudly proclaims that Benjamin Ashwood “was one of the Top 5 Epic Fantasy debuts of 2016.” I found that hard to believe, based on the lack of reviews by review sites, but then I went to Goodreads and found several 5 star ratings, and I just shook my head. As for myself, I will be steering clear of the sequel.