As a reader, I’m always looking for that little something extra: a kind of spark, a bit of bite, a touch of richness, that makes a book really stand out for me. For the most part, I’ve been lucky: many of the books I’ve read in the past few years since I started actively writing and posting reviews have had that little bit extra, and I can usually compile a nice long list of them at the end of every year.
However, it’s also true that there are plenty of books that don’t quite get there, either. Some are just bad, or boring: still worth reviewing, but with varying degrees of venom laced into the words. There are also some books that are so bad, I don’t bother reviewing them at all, because they aggravate me so much I’d just wind up writing in long, complicated circles that don’t make any sense at all. In those cases, I leave it up to others to do the writing, though if I’m asked, in person, what I think of a book I really don’t like, I’m more than happy to act the part of windbag and keep talking about how much I hate it till the cows come home. (Making sense is not always required in such instances, but I do try.)
Having just come off of a rather bad read, I was looking for something a bit more pleasant, something that would help me forget the fiasco I’d just read and put me in a better mood. Some restless flicking through my Kindle reminded me that I’d acquired a copy of Marshall Ryan Maresca’s The Thorn of Dentonhill not too long after its release, and I thought it was as good a book as any to (hopefully) start an upswing in my reading.
The Thorn of Dentonhill is the first book in Maresca’s Maradaine series, and is also his debut novel. Set in the fantasy city of Maradaine, it tells the story of Veranix Calbert, who by day is a magic student at the University of Maradaine, but by night is a vigilante who goes out and tries to break the drug trade headed by the infamous Willem Fenmere, one deal at a time. However, when Veranix spoils a trade and finds not drugs, but a pair of magical items, he realises that he now has the power to really put the hurt on Fenmere—and in doing so, draws the ire of an even more powerful and dangerous enemy.
The first thing I noticed about this novel—and the first thing that really lifted my spirits—was the world-building, though it could use some work. For example: the city of Maradaine. On the surface, it reads like an actual city: people engage in commerce, go to see shows, and street gangs work their territories according to unspoken rules. However, there is a certain lack of life, of vibrancy to the descriptions of the city that would actually make it live, so to speak, in the reader’s mind. I’ve said before that cities are characters in their own right (like Scott Lynch’s Camorr, for instance, or Ben Aaronovitch’s version of London in the Peter Grant novels), but Maradaine just isn’t quite that. It’s clear that it functions as a city, but it lacks a certain unique character of its own, something that really makes a city, a city. Hopefully that’s something that will change in later books, because Maradaine clearly has the potential to become a unique and interesting city, and I hope Maresca gives it its own character further down the line.
Another aspect of the world-building that worked, but not quite, is the magic system. For the most part, it makes sense, operating on a system that appears, for the most part, to be coherent: not everyone is born with the ability to use magic (or numina, as it’s called in the novel), but those who can, can both wield it and sense it—to varying degrees of skill. Some people are better at sensing numina than wielding it, while others are the reverse, capable of doing some wondrous things with numina while not being very good at sensing it. Working with numina, however, isn’t without its downsides: mages deplete their own physical energy when they work with numina, and if they push themselves too far, the results could be deadly. It’s not clear in the book if one can be good at both drawing and wielding numina, though it’s hinted that hard work and dedication can improve the weaker ability over time. There’s also quite a bit of talk about how certain objects can be imbued with numina, as well as the potential effects of specific astronomic events, but those aren’t really delved into, though they do form part of the plot’s backbone.
All of the above makes sense—and, more importantly, actually works in the context of the world itself. However, I do feel like the system could have been made a bit deeper, a touch more complex, in order to make it more interesting. I think this lack of depth has more to do with the general “smallness” of the setting, since there’s plenty of talk about how other people use numina in places outside of Maradaine, but the reader is never really shown what that kind of magic looks like. Hopefully that will change in later novels.
As for the characters, they’re a charming-enough bunch, and fit into their world remarkably well. Veranix is just fine as a character, for the most part, but he’s not as interesting as I think he could be. While his temper and impulsiveness are quite fun to read about, especially when they get him to scrapes, he didn’t feel as well-rounded as I think he ought to be. He’s not totally intolerant to read about, but I did find myself wishing he was more than just the charming student/vigilante with a dark past.
Fortunately, the other characters are interesting to read about—sometimes more so than Veranix. I have a soft spot for Colin, Veranix’s cousin, who is a captain of the Rose Street Princes, a gang who control the territory just outside of the University of Maradaine. The contrast he makes to Veranix—rough around the edges, but far more circumspect about his actions—make him very appealing to read about. I also really like Delmin, Veranix’s friend, who isn’t very good at manipulating numina but is exceptionally talented at sensing it. Again, I like that he acts as a balance to Veranix, playing the role of the bookish friend who really wants to stay out of trouble but is capable of doing extraordinary things when the need calls for it.
And then there is Kaiana Nell. If Veranix has a real partner in this novel, it would have to be her: she and Veranix have the same goals (put an end to Fenmere’s drug trade), but unlike Veranix, she can’t really do anything concrete. As a Napa woman, she is doubly oppressed, both for her gender and her race, and this means she doesn’t have the same freedom as Veranix does to conduct a guerrilla war against the man they both hate. However, she is the one Veranix relies on to be there when things go wrong; throughout the course of the novel, he states, again and again and in various ways, that he trusts Kaiana with everything, his own life included. In fact, without her, he would be unable to conduct his war against Fenmere. It’s not certain whether or not she and Veranix will eventually go into a romantic relationship, but I really, truly hope that she and Veranix remain friends, not least because it would break away from the expected course and add them to the very short of male and female characters who are great platonic, instead of romantic, partners.
Unfortunately, Kaiana is the only female character of any true significance in this novel: a dearth I felt keenly as I kept on waiting for more, equally interesting female characters to show up. A few women street gang members were presented, along with some drug addicts and a handful of prostitutes, but they weren’t around for very long and never appeared again. Although I’d be very happy to read more about Kaiana, I would appreciate it even more if there were other, equally significant female characters: a female student, perhaps, or a professor, or even a street gang leader—just someone with a role as important as Kaiana’s.
I also found myself raising my eyebrow somewhat at the villains, with the exception of Fenmere, who was a rather pleasant surprise. Fenmere turned out to be more interesting after a while: worthy of the condemnation heaped upon him by Veranix and Kaiana and everybody else in the novel, to be sure, but there’s something about him that I find intriguing. I don’t expect him to become a sympathetic character, but he does, at least, appear to have more to him than just his brutality and sadism.
The same can’t be said for the mages of the Blue Hand. They seemed rather cartoonish to me: the sort of villains who cackle in their lairs and yell “You will pay for this!” over their shoulders as they make their escape. Given that the Blue Hand are supposed to be a greater threat than Fenmere, I was hoping there would be more facets to their villainy, but there were none—or at least, none that I could see in this novel. Hopefully they’re developed into a true and proper threat in later novels.
As for the plot, like everything else mentioned so far it’s quite fun, but it could do with some improvement. It starts out somewhat slow, but doesn’t take long to pick up speed as the novel progresses, with Veranix’s temper and impulsiveness powering the whole thing along until the climax. There were a few twists thrown in there, but I found myself wishing that there were more, or that the ones that already existed were even more twisted and unexpected in their outcomes. As they stand, they aren’t all that bad, but I keep getting the sense that they could be more, somehow, that if Maresca had pushed just a bit harder, just a bit farther, then the end result would be something spectacular indeed.
Overall, The Thorn of Dentonhill is a charming, easy fantasy read, and altogether not a bad debut novel. There’s plenty of things that I think could be tweaked—richer world-building; better character development; and deeper plot—but as things stand, it isn’t bad at all. At the very least, it makes me look forward to the other Maradaine book coming out later this year, which promises to show more aspects of the city through the eyes of a new cast of characters. I look forward to reading about Veranix and his companions though, and I hope that when we next meet, things will have taken a turn for the better.