Book review: A Spell in the Country by Morgan Smith

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Review of A Spell in the Country

A Spell in the Country by Morgan Smith is a fantasy narrative in the first person style. Author Smith immediately pulled me into the character Keridwen of Orliegh. The voice of Keridwen is clear and clipped with a worldly attitude and a sense of irony. The story opens with our heroine in a pinch that only gets worse with a prelude to her being hanged as a traitor. The immediate backstory is given to us in a trial and because there’s tension (she’s being judged), I am totally okay with it.  The questions, her responses, and internal context moved the story forward and established her as no-nonsense pragmatic character (I rather think she’d get along with some of my protagonists).

It’s not a giveaway that Keridwen does somehow survive except perhaps that this is a first person narrative and if she didn’t, it would be a very short book indeed. Our young soldier gets assigned to Penvarron fortress, a half-forgotten border keep full of misfits and wash-outs. She is introduced to the mostly useless drunken fortress commander Aiden, and jolly-giant lady quartermaster Sorcha. Hours into this new duty she ends up in charge of the East Third garrison.

Author Smith doesn’t rush anything, we’re given time to see Keridwen’s stoic and methodical approach to making something of herself and the troops of this misbegotten post. Keridwen’s narrative voice and inner thoughts keep things interesting, and there’s just enough hint of something coming to keep the pages turning. If not for some anachronistic terms and some inconsistency in the way dates are referenced, I would have given this a perfect execution score.

By chapter ten the necessary magic to make it fantasy book is unveiled along with some unexpected revenge that I won’t spoil. It is at this point we are treated to the first serious fight scene. Author Smith shows veteran chops keeping things tight, winding tension up, making it unpredictable.

The battle and the black-ceremony shake things up, and Keridwen ends up sent back to courier the happenings to the Queen. Before this, this story is light on the dialogue, but we are treated to great interactions between Keridwen, the Queen, and members of the court. The revelations concerning how close her father is to the nobility are great and add depth.

Through the mid-part of the book it crescendos with Keridwen’s confrontation with the demon Eater. The confusion and chaos are more than adequately handled as is the denouement that pushes our irascible heroine on to greater and grander happenings.

The twisty ending pays off, and while not unpredictable, is not predictable in the way we get there. It left me satisfied, and wanting more, and that’s how it’s done.

Rating (1-5)

Execution :  4.80 — It’s not perfect, but darn near. It’s so good that when Keridwen slips on an anachronism or a 4th wall break, it really stands out. All I have are the quibbles of a critical reviewer, and I’m reaching to dig for anything. From a writing standpoint, first-person is one of the hardest styles to maintain. When it’s good, like we have here, it really grabs hold of you. Structurally speaking, I would have liked more tension and foreshadowing near the beginning than I got, but that’s largely my impatience. A nitpick that would have squeezed it closer to perfect would have been more follow-on details and tags for the cast. The dialogue is often brilliant and well handled in terms of gestures, pacing, and diction, but the one thing I wanted was extra details to build on the appearance of the characters. Especially in the middle when the story starts to focus on relationships. One mechanical issue that I hope gets fixed is “— er —”. In all this otherwise excellent prose, it doesn’t look right for one, and when the dialogue is spoken the diction doesn’t work. The answer is ellipses, not m-dashes. Sorry, that barely qualifies as a quibble.

Setting :  4.0 – 4.5 — There’s not a lot of flash in the setting. It’s gritty, it’s palpable, and all too plausible. Keridwen’s voice-over in the scenes is smooth and unforced providing practical detail without excess ornamentation. There’s no pretense or lapses into authorial voice which makes everything credible and immersive. This is not fantastic sword or sorcery, but more like a well-narrated soldier’s diary from the renaissance with a little supernatural thrown in. As I got through the halfway point, I started wanting a map. As it rolls through the third quarter of the story we get more history and world building, and magical elements are refined and scoped. As the conflict rises in the last act, there’s a strong sense of the circle closing and the events from the start of the book taking on new meaning and significance.

Character : 4.5 — The blurb offers Keridwen as ordinary. This is just part of the character’s stoic humility and against all odds stubbornness. She’s not perfect, thank god, and author Smith keeps pitching at her to hit or miss as events careen on. Keridwen, is not all grit and we get to see her softer shades as she struggles to have social dimensions besides being a girl with a sword attached. If everything in the narrative were Keridwen, I’d score closer to 5.0. I found myself wanting to see the other cast in more detail, and hoping author Smith would find some clever way to work it in. It is what it is, and in this case just falling short of awesome isn’t so bad.

Overall :  5.0 — This is my first five star review. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is closer to five stars than it is to four. This work suffers no where. It is well crafted and professional. As an experienced writer, I can pick nits here and there that I rather doubt most readers will even notice. I have only two words in parting to this: “sequel please!”

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