Summary: Veranix Calbert leads a double life. By day, he’s a struggling magic student at the University of Maradaine. At night, he spoils the drug trade of Willem Fenmere, crime boss of Dentonhill and murderer of Veranix’s father. He’s determined to shut Fenmere down.
With that goal in mind, Veranix disrupts the delivery of two magical artifacts meant for Fenmere’s clients, the mages of the Blue Hand Circle. Using these power-filled objects in his fight, he quickly becomes a real thorn in Fenmere’s side.
So much so that soon not only Fenmere, but powerful mages, assassins, and street gangs all want a piece of “The Thorn.” And with professors and prefects on the verge of discovering his secrets, Veranix’s double life might just fall apart. Unless, of course, Fenmere puts an end to it first.
Thoughts: Sometimes you like books because they introduce something new and incredible to your world, expanding your viewpoint and challenging preconceived notions and doing so while they take you along on an amazing ride through places you never expected. Other times, you like books because they’re just fun, good and simple fun, relying on the tried-and-true and tweaking it just enough to make it a unique story in its own right but still leaving enough comfortable familiarity to let you enjoy it without really taxing yourself.
The Thorn of Dentonhill is definitely in the second category.
Veranix is a university student, studying magic and approaching his graduation. But by night, he’s a bit of a vigilante, seeking out drug users and dealers and putting whatever dents he can in the machine that is the drug trade. Veranix has a massive hate-on for the drug effitte, having seen it destroy the lives of those close to him in one way or another, and he’s determined to undermine the trade by any means necessary. So when he comes across what seems to be a drug deal but that actually turns out to be the trade of a seemingly normal cloak and length of rope, his life spins just a little further out of control when he finds himself in the middle of artifact-trading and dark magical rituals and happenings that go far beyond the relatively simple drug busts he’s used to.
The book starts off a little shakily, with a rather meandering story and a few awkward infodumps about magic that seem very much out of place for the characters involved but are nevertheless somewhat important to the reader. It’s established that Veranix is both student by day and drug buster by night, leading his double life, but it’s not until he finds that cloak and rope that the story really gets started, and, as such, tightens up dramatically. The downside to this is that those giving the book a 3-chapter try might find themselves bored and wondering where the actual story is, and may end up giving up on the book because nothing really happens for a while, and as such end up missing out on a fun novel because the early pacing isn’t that great.
But rest assured, once it does get going, it really gets going. Things improve a lot after that one scene, so it’s worth sticking with.
Maresca has taken the time to do some interesting worldbuilding, which shows up less in the scenery and more in the characters. For the most part, it’s a fairly generic fantasy world with just a few tweaks, but nothing you couldn’t transplant into just about any other classic fantasy world already in existence. Magic is fuelled by drawing on energy, known as numina. The streets have gangs, some better than others, some worse. There’s a destructive drug problem. Mages guard their secrets and stick together in cliquish Circles. Fairly standard stuff that could pop up anywhere, and has a dozen times over. But it’s in the characters that it all really comes together and you see glimpses of a wider world than just the streets of Maradaine. Mages have a very high metabolism, and the more powerful the mage, the more they have to eat to fuel themselves. Street gangs have their own ways of doing things, their own divisions of territory and speciality. Slang shows up in ways that make you really feel like the world goes back a lot further than just the characters we’re seeing on the pages now, that they’re just a small part of something much more complete. I was impressed by the way the world shaped and showed in the characters, rather than the other way around. It gave everything a much more well-rounded feel than you often get in fantasy novels that take place in such a small span of time and over a very small area (less than a city, really, since you only get to see the university and a few streets and buildings).
For those who enjoy their fantasy filled with action, there’s definitely plenty of that in here. It may not be dark and gritty with gory and horrific wounds all over the place, but there’s a good amount of energy and tension more often than not. It’s neither bloodless nor sanitized, but it does feel like clean violence, so to speak, more along the lines of what you’d seen on TV when something has a PG rating. It’s there, it’s exciting, but it’s not tremendously graphic. Which, honestly, adds to the light and fun feel of the book overall. It actually does a lot to keep the pacing of the novel rather tight, which may be part of the problem of the early chapters; there’s very little action there and a whole lot of setup.
One thing I did particularly like about this book is that it addresses the creation of legends in an amusing way. Veranix at one point, and only one point, calls himself the thorn in Fenmere’s side. From there, the idea sticks, and then snowballs, until he’s known on the streets at the Thorn, a local hero, and with an image that is a bit larger than life. One small phrase and before he knows it, he’s a local legend, with people rooting for him and using him in propaganda. Veranix didn’t set out to create that image of himself for other people to hero-worship. He was just doing what he does, and the rest happened in the minds of those who heard the stories. I thought it was a great way of presenting how a person’s image can change in the public eye not because of something that they’re done, but because of something the public wants and thinks. The image of Veranix became larger than the man himself, and he had to content not only with living his usual double-life and trying to solve the mystery of the cloak and rope, but also with keeping people from finding out who this new superhero really was.
But when all is said and done, The Thorn on Dentonhill is a pretty good fantasy novel, good for relaxing reading when you don’t feel like immersing yourself in something entirely new. It’s got plenty to keep readers turning the pages, at least once they get past the early bits, and enough action and mystery to have them speculating right alongside the characters. I’m definitely interested in seeing what Maresca will do with the world in future novels, because while this novel could stand alone in its own right with no need for any continuation, I can’t shake the feeling that there are more stories to be wrung from this world, and I want to be there when they are. Definitely a fun read, and one classic fantasy fans will likely enjoy.
(Received for review from the publisher.)