Last Updated on December 15, 2023
In The Sword Defiant, The Nine, a group of adventurers, faced down the threats of the Wilders, the Witch Elves, and Lord Bone and overthrew the evil city of Necrad. It cost them the life of Peir the Paladin, but the heroes won. The survivors swore an oath to defend and rule the city of Necrad. Twenty years later, and their victory has turned sour.
The Sword Defiant is the new series by Gareth Hanrahan, author of The Black Iron Legacy series. His previous series was filled with strange and unique elements, creating a fascinating but alienating setting. This one, despite a few touches, is intentionally filled with the tropes of more traditional fantasy: Elves, dwarves, wizards, clerics, paladins, and so on. The protagonist, Aelfric, is a veteran warrior of the Nine with a talking magic sword he took from one of Lord Bone’s lieutenants.
The Sword Defiant was inspired partially by the Tolkien quote:
“The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-Dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”
Necrad, city of spawning horrors, was not destroyed but occupied by the heroes. The survivors of the Nine are now rulers of Necrad, forced to deal with the thousand cuts of bureaucracy and diplomacy. A few are adept at playing the game, but ruling is a far cry from the heroic combat of their youth. Aelfric, for his part, spends much of his time in the Pits, where creatures continue to spawn, to stem their tide so they cannot make their way to the surface. The dwarves and elves and Berys, who had been the thief of the Nine, keep pushing for their own advancement, and Blaise, the wizard, has largely locked himself away in his tower.
The other point of view in The Sword Defiant is Aelfric’s sister Olva. She leaves home after her son is convinced to go meet his famous uncle and promptly gets himself kidnapped. Her plot is much more of the traditional travelogue of classic fantasy, seeing new places, meeting with new allies, and dealing with threats on the road. The largest change is that she is a mature woman old enough to have a fully grown son. When both siblings finally meet up, the book became significantly stronger.
The characters slot very much into established tropes. Aelfric is the world-weary warrior who will keep persevering, and may stumble into traps because he’s not the plotting type. The best part of The Sword Defiant is his semi-antagonistic relationship with his talking sword, Spellbreaker (the eponymous defiant sword). His best friend among the Nine is the dwarven warrior, but even the ones he is more concerned by he still views as one of the Nine, and he won’t move against them. He mourns Peir the Paladin, who he believes could have kept even as vile a city as Necrad moving in a positive direction.
The world-building has enough twists on established tropes to be enjoyable. The elves live forever, and if they’re mortally wounded they’ll simply linger in the spirit realm until they can walk free again. There is an endless war between the Wood Elves and the Witch Elves, but the Wood Elves very much want to forgive their kin. The vatlings can only exist in Necrad, but are much friendlier and don’t seem like any of the other creatures spawned out of the city. Necrad itself is filled with magical treasures that are being looted and smuggled out to those willing to pay, despite the dangers those magics pose. The Sword Defiant uses our knowledge of what a traditional fantasy setting should be like so it can sketch in the details and let our knowledge take over from there.
If anything, the setting and scenario feels like something out of a fun, engaging tabletop RPG campaign. The characters all have races and classes straight from Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, and Aelfric’s routine involves going into a dungeon that’s constantly filling with new monsters. Aelfric is able to take on nearly any threat with or without Spellbreaker; clearly he’s leveled up.
But it’s much harder for Aelfric to battle the Nine, his former companions, whether or not the group is splintering, and whether or not they’ve become monsters.