I tend to respond to puns in much the same way a vampire responds to sunlight, or Jerry Falwell to gay people. Which is why you haven't yet seen the site laden with reviews of the work of Piers Anthony, Peter David, or Robert Asprin. Puns are the ugly stepchild of comedy, inspiring (in anyone with taste, that is, he said pompously) not merry chuckles but eyeball rolling and pained groans. So it was in a guarded manner that I crept into the pages of Wartorn: Resurrection.
I'm happy to say this is a punless, straightforward, traditional fantasy adventure. Though not much about it pushes any envelopes, it's told with clarity and confidence, and its characters — though stock players — are nicely fleshed out. This ought to satisfy fantasy fans looking for old-fashioned escapism that isn't too heavily reliant upon tired formula, and isn't a life-suckingly bloated epic either. It's a lean, mean, fighting machine at 295 pages. There isn't a silly pun or fanboyish attempt at juvenile comedy in sight.
An engrossing little tale graced by solid attention to character, Wartorn: Resurrection is set on an isthmus connecting two larger continents. In a dismissal of fantasy convention, there's no map at the front of the book, but the narrative makes the geography easy to comprehend. Felk, the northernmost of the Isthmus's city-states, is ruled by the mage Lord Matokin, who has imperialist ambitions. Matokin has launched a ruthless war of conquest, taking out city-states one by one as his armies tromp southward. His trump card is magic, which has never before seen military use. Through magical portals, Felk's armies traverse great distances in almost no time, pouncing upon unprepared foes and delivering the old shock-and-awe with terrifying efficacy. Worst hit is U'delph, a city-state utterly laid waste as a "Resistance Is Futile" object lesson. Neighboring city-states are quick to learn it. They cave without a fight.
Matokin's armies are led by General Weisel. Unbeknownst to everyone but Matokin and his wizards, Weisel's body has been possessed by the resurrected spirit of a long-dead warlord, Dardas. Between Matokin and Dardas there is a seething conflict, despite the latter's effectiveness in battle on behalf of the former. Dardas desperately wants the secret of magic that Matokin's wizards possess, so that he can perhaps free himself from Matokin's control. The resurrection spells that revived Dardas need periodic upkeep, and Dardas knows full well he's been brought back only to serve Matokin's military ends. Once the Isthmus has been conquered, Dardas can go back where he came from. And so it's Dardas's personal plan to keep the wars raging as long as possible, while finding a wizard he can weasel magic secrets out of. His intent in annihilating U'delph was not to frighten the other city-states into submission but to provoke them into a long and costly resistance.
But Dardas's activities have been studied by a young scholar named Praulth at the University in Febretree, the southernmost city-state on the Isthmus and presumably the last stop on Felk's hit parade. Praulth recognizes Dardas's signature in how the war has unfolded so far, and makes her suspicions known that Dardas himself may have been revived. She informs the Premier of neighboring Petgrad, who is trying to unite several city-states in a resistance, not knowing that is exactly what Dardas wants.
This modest little tale did a better job of entertaining me than a lot of heavily-hyped titles of late. Yes, one can quibble with plot points. Certain characters find themselves thrust into positions of influence that aren't particularly realistic given who they are, but that fit the story's needs conveniently. And much key backstory — wherefore Matokin's imperialist desires, and what prompted the decision to resurrect Dardas, considering that the wizards' portals are doing as much if not more to win the war than any strategizing of Dardas's? so why would Matokin put a long-dead potential rival in charge of his armies? — is simply blown off in favor of getting us right into the action.
But the book held my attention despite these glaring questions, and I liked the way Asprin and del Carlo kept the narrative rooted in well-drawn characters. There's hardly ever a point you don't believe these are real people trying to endure a time of strife. Following the method of A Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter follows the viewpoint of one of six principal players. Among them are Dardas and Praulth, as well as Bryck, a survivor of U'delph whose plan for vengeance involves waging one-man psy-ops against Felk (shades of Eric Frank Russell's Wasp); Raven, a wizard in training eager to impress Matokin (whom she believes to be her father), who finds herself spying on Dardas for him; and Radstac, a tough-as-nails female mercenary who accompanies the Premier's nephew on a crazy mission to assassinate Weisel/Dardas. Some of the characters are more interesting (and convincing) than others. The least of them is Aquint, a smuggler conscripted into the Felk armies. But overall the writers have learned well from George R. R. Martin. All the trappings of fantasy don't count for much without a strong cast in whom your reader can feel invested.
It's been my experience that when you see a collaboration like this, in which one writer is a big name and the other relatively unknown, it's the relative-unknown who's done most of the work, and the collaboration is marketing designed to introduce a new talent to readers. If that's the case with Wartorn: Resurrection, it could pay off for Eric del Carlo. He's a talent fantasy fans ought to watch.