Format: signed hard cover, 2019
Reading Time: about 5.5 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: When the strange traveler Aristodeus arrives with troubling news, and strange events begin to happen in Arx Gravis, Carn’s world slowly descends into a nightmare that he can’t wake from.
Since this is the first book in the series, which I picked up without any preconceptions, and I couldn’t find any guest reviews, I’m going to jump right in to the review. Ravine of Blood and Shadow is the first book in the Annals of the Nameless Dwarf series. The origins of the Nameless Dwarf started as a short story that D.P. Prior wrote back in 2009 for Pulp Empire. That turned into 5 novellas, which were in turn published as an omnibus, and then another full length novel followed that. Looking to tie all the stories together in a cohesive arc, Prior approached publishing houses who were complementary of his work but stated that “dwarves don’t sell.” Prior decided to self-publish the books as Legend of the Nameless Dwarf, which went on to sell over 600,000 copies, as well as a successful (but complaint-generating) audio book. Prior decided to reboot the series, both in hard cover and in a new audio book, as Annals of the Nameless Dwarf. It became a major re-write, according to Prior:
“Scenes were axed (characters too); scenes were added. Big words were ditched in favor of simpler ones. Names were changed, again to make them easier for the reader. Whole passages of prose were trimmed, and many thousands of words were cut.
The result: a much faster, more succinct, and focused read. It’s not only improved the series, but in essence it has created something new.”
I somehow stumbled across the series on Amazon, intrigued by the gorgeous cover art, and a trip to the author’s website revealed that he was selling signed hard covers. Putting money directly into an author’s hands is always an easy decision for me, so I reached out to Prior, sent him some money, and soon I had received a signed hard cover.
Ravine of Blood and Shadow (which was previously titled Carnifex: A Portent of Blood before the major re-write) follows the story of Carnifex (Carn), a high level Ravine Guard, whose mother died in childbirth. But Carn has his brother, the studious Lukar, and his friends Kal, Thumil and Cordy, as well as his father, Droom. Characters are so well-defined that it is impossible to mistake one for another or get confused about who is who. Prior does an excellent job in fleshing out each character…their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears, their mannerisms and motivations. Even certain members of the Council and their right hand, the Black Cloaks, come off like self-serving jerks rather than actual villains. And then there’s the mysterious Aristodeus, a Gandalf-like character who brings dire warnings of a being of ancient evil known as Mananoc, as well as the faen, his magic-wielding servants. And of dark visions and prophecies.
The use of prophesy in fantasy has always been problematic. Since a prophesy foretells what will happen, it essentially robs a story of tension, since the outcome is already known. Furthermore, it implies acceptance of the concept of fate – that the future is written and cannot be changed, so that any choices or the concept of free will are made meaningless. Prior takes a bit of a different approach here. Early hints in the story suggest there are dark times ahead and that Carn will play an instrumental role. Aristodeus is the primary hint-dropper, with statements like “I’ve already said too much”. Prior introduces prophesy and vision, but immediately counters it with Aristodeus trying to convince himself that “the future is not set”, implying that it perhaps the prophesy can be changed. Which then begs the question: if it can be changed, should it? Let’s say there are two paths the future could take: a) the hero rises from tragedy to challenge evil or b) the hero is told of the tragedy, chooses a different path and spells doom for everyone. Is Option B really the best one? Furthermore, if there are two paths, how does someone know which path is the path their enemy wants them to take? I felt like Prior did a good job in conceptualizing and presenting this.
The dwarven society and the city of Arx Gravis are intricate and well-described. From dwarven histories and legends, to laws, political structuring, and policing, to mining and leisure aspects…all are believable and make sense. Even the floor of the ravine, where the destitute, law-breakers and non-conformers live, has it’s own sub-culture full of street vendors, crime, and brutal gladiatorial combat. There are two great maps at the front of the book: the continent of Medryn-Tha, which has no bearing on the story, and Arx Gravis, which is very effective in helping to conceptualize the unique layout of the dwarven city.
Action sequences are well-done, and there are plenty of them for such a short book. Amazon and Goodread reviewers mention violence and gore, but to me it was no worse than other books I’ve read lately such as The True Bastards or God of Broken Things. If I had to stylize the content, I’d say this: take some Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, the tragic swords and sorcery tales of Elric, James Silke’s Death Dealer, and add a slight influence from The Hobbit, and throw them all in a blender…that’s what Ravine of Blood and Shadow feels like to me. Prior’s pacing is excellent; there were concerns about this in Carnifex: A Portent of Blood but I’d say those concerns have been corrected in the re-write. His writing style is also easy to follow, a welcome relief and change of pace from some of the intense door-stoppers I’ve endured. And for a self-published novel, I found no grammatical issues.
Something potential readers might find problematic are hints at other lands and other peoples, but this setting contains only dwarves and dwarven society. This is necessary due to the fact that this is an “origin story”, but it is rather limiting. However, I think I prefer this as opposed to starting with book 2 and presenting this material as flashbacks, so I wouldn’t take this as a negative – it simply sets the stage for the second book which will move away from the dwarven setting. One critique I have of Ravine of Blood and Shadow is that it is too short. At 235 pages it is the shortest book I’ve read since early 2018, and it feels like it ends when it’s just getting started…I can see the attractiveness of an omnibus. Also, for some reason I found the central mystery – the missing and then returned book of the dwarven “Chronicles” – confusing. Somehow I missed the significance of this act and the importance it played in the story…I thought Prior could have handled it a bit better, with more clarity. The final criticism I have of the book is that it doesn’t do a lot to dispel the stereotypes of fantasy dwarven characters that publishers seem to object to. Beards, beer-swilling, fighting and mining are dwarven staples, and aside from an exception or two, such as the scholarly Lukar, Prior stays the course.
Despite some of the minor flaws above, I liked Ravine of Blood and Shadow enough to purchase the second book. I found it a quick-moving, action-packed origin story that is needed to get the series off the ground and beyond dwarven society. If you don’t like Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, Elric, The Hobbit, or dark violence all rolled into one, you probably won’t like this either, but as for myself I found it engaging. I’m looking forward to the second book, Mountain of Madness, to see where Prior takes this story…