Format: hard cover, self-published, 2015
Reading Time: about 7 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: as dark creatures begin to appear and treachery threatens the kingdom of Rune on all sides, a drunken former hero, a bookish acolyte, and a small band of assassins may be all that stands between Rune and ruin.
I discovered this book when earlier this year I stumbled across the results of the 2015 Self Published Fantasy Blog Off that were held by Mark Lawrence. What Remains of Heroes advanced into the final 10 before falling short, but it enjoyed a great deal of success and lead to a sequel. Since I liked other entries from that contest (namely The Crimson Queen and The Path of Flames), I thought I would give What Remains of Heroes a shot, especially with a hard cover edition available. My review follows, and I’ll make sure I specifically point out the places where I reveal spoilers on this one. Although I didn’t include it in my guest reviews, head over to The Weatherwax Report for a good plot and character summary that doesn’t contain any major spoilers. On to the guest reviews…
Richard Bray of Fantasy Faction writes: “Of all the characters in the book, nobody faces horror equal to what Lannick faces in the book, and his encounters with the Necrists – evil magic users intent on bringing the dark god Yrghul, Lord of Nightmares, back to the living world – are truly harrowing. Those scenes are well-crafted, and you can genuinely feel Lannick’s rising horror as he battles creatures who have stolen the faces of his dead wife and children…Once Lannick sobers up, he handily kills a loan shark and his two henchmen, but we never really meet this great leader of men that we’re told Lannick used to be…(Bale’s) scenes lend us a better understanding of the world’s religious history, but can also be a touch slow in a novel that doesn’t seem to have quite enough action to fit in the mold of Abercrombie or Lawrence. Much of the plot revolves around the religious mythology Benem has crafted. That aspect of the world-building is well done, but a plot centered around the good guys fighting to keep a dark god from returning to wreak death and destruction felt a touch too familiar for my tastes…At times the characters also seemed strangely self-aware…It was almost as though they realized exactly which character archetypes they were meant to fulfill and wanted to make certain the reader didn’t miss them either…There are some good aspects to the book – Benem’s development of the world’s religious history stands out, and the Necrists are as creepy as anything I’ve read outside the horror genre – so if the characters click for you, you’ll really enjoy the book.”
Fred Phillips at The Royal Library states: “In all honesty, I thought that some portions of the book could have used a little more polish, but by and large it’s quite well written, and I soon found myself immersed in Benem’s world. It reminded me somewhat of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, both in tone and structure, but it grabbed me and pulled me in much quicker than Abercrombie’s story did. I often groan when I’m approached with self-published books. Like most reviewers, I’ve been bombarded for years with poorly written and edited pieces, but every now and then there’s a gem. I’ll go one step further and say that “What Remains of Heroes” is a true diamond. It’s a book that I think could stand toe-to-toe with pretty much any major publisher fantasy out there.”
Finally, Aderyn Wood offers this take: “While in the Sanctum, we’re also introduced to my favourite character, Acolyte Zandrachus Bale, who we first meet sneezing in the dusty ancient library. Bale is a favourite, not only because he goes about mumbling about how much he “hates people,” but also because he is a most unlikely hero forced to undertake a quest to find a certain Sanctum elder’s magical remains. Bale’s trepidation is very human and his plans are frequently thwarted, and I liked him a lot…I enjoyed this book mostly because of the close proximity to the characters the narrative invokes. The story is an intriguing one, but it’s the characters who made it so enjoyable for me. I also enjoyed the magic system, which provides an intriguing and compelling ‘reveal’, and will continue to build and fascinate, I suspect, with the next book in the series. The antagonists are certainly there, though there’s room for development and I look forward to learning more about the necrists as well as General Fane’s motivations…What Remains of Heroes is a compelling read that incorporates familiar elements of the genre, without feeling tired or stale. Pick it up when you want a read in which you can trust the author to do his job and take you on an epic tale of grim adventure and magic, with characters you’ll like and a world you can lose yourself in.”
I love the points the other reviewers have made – they are spot on. Like Richard, as soon as I read about a dark lord I thought, “oh great, here we go…”, but rather than to play into the “farm boy with a sword trope”, Benem does something very clever. Not only does he take other tropes (bookish priest, assassin, hero-turned-drunk) and put just enough spin on them to make them compelling, it is his ancillary characters such as Fencress, Lorra and Gamghast that steal the spotlight. And like Richard, I thought the first book was definitely lacking in action sequences. The world building was excellent – I love the fading religious beliefs, immortal exiles, and relics of the past – I just think that 400 pages wasn’t enough to introduce the characters and explore the world without sacrificing something, which turned out to be action. From what I read, however, with the characters and world established, the sequel is where the action really picks up, which makes perfect sense.
Despite the infrequent action sequences, I was thoroughly wrapped up in What Remains of Heroes and didn’t want to put it down. I think it is the world-building that hooked me. I really enjoyed reading about the sentinels and the old religion. I would put the world building slightly behind The Crimson Queen and on par with The Path of Flames. And as I mentioned above, I think I liked the supporting characters a lot more than the main characters. Another aspect that Benem does well is create tension, which is far more noticeable with less action present. (SPOILER ALERT – SKIP THE NEXT THREE PARAGRAPH IF YOU MUST!) Scenes such as the assassination of the Lector hold up well early on. Later scenes, such as when Karnag’s band is searching for him in the mist and stumble upon a hut made of body parts, or Bale’s journey to find one of the Sentinels, and the ensuing confrontation with her – these are very compelling sequences and I thoroughly enjoyed them.
Another aspect that Benem explores is that despite the clear distinction of good and evil where it relates to the heroes and the Necrists, Rune is not a great place to live. In the past the High King banished the Sentinels, the protectors of the kingdom, in what the Sentinels call an act of jealousy and power-grabbing; yet, these Sentinels, when they appear in the story, don’t seem entirely empathetic; in fact, they seem to be a little scary and unhinged. This could just be bitterness at having been exiled, or it could be their true character. The High Kings of the past have not always been decent people either, and though one of the plot lines has the reader caring about the Queen and her unborn child, we are often shown the opulence within the castle, while the people outside the castle seem to suffer from the heavy-handedness of their rulers, as well as criminal elements, while living in dirty conditions, with some starving and desperate. Just when you think it wouldn’t be so bad to let the High King’s line die out, the other characters waiting to seize power are worse, and if the High King dies without an heir the dark lord can be freed. That kind of complexity found within the story is really quite excellent. I don’t think we see enough common people to totally empathize with their plight, but we know they are there.
There were a couple of problems I had with the book. Benem’s writing is good, and the book is extremely polished for a self-published novel, but occasionally I felt detached from the characters, and Benem’s descriptions occasionally left me wanting more as I tried to picture the scene in my mind. In a few places I found some words used multiple times in the same sentence that lent a bit of repetitiveness, although it’s not really a problem, just something I noticed, as I do it myself on occasion and an editor tends to catch it. The opening sex scene and the choice of Lannick to participate in it seems a bit gratuitous, out of place, and frankly a little unbelievable. And this leads into the main problem of the book – Lannick is just not a great, compelling character. He has too much baggage, his role in the book is, so far, underwhelming, and his journey to redemption is incomplete. His sequences drag on what is otherwise an excellent read, and I found myself not really caring about what was happening with him. These are all minor criticisms, however, that did not impact my enjoyment of the book.
And enjoy it I did. As mentioned previously, I couldn’t wait to pick it up again once I had put it down, and I blazed through it fairly quickly, which are both good indicators of an enjoyable story. I’m looking forward to the sequel, The Wrath of Heroes, which Benem was kind enough to send to me, with an autograph no less! I typically don’t accept freebies – I want to remain as objective as possible – but in this case Benem says a hard cover may appear down the road, at which point I will buy it. That means I will spend my hard-earned money on it at some point in the future, and I feel that will allow me to maintain my objectivity.
If you do pick up What Remains of Heroes at some point, head over to Benem’s blog to check out this helpful map, which adds a lot of clarity to the story.