Act of Will: Like a Shakespearean comedy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews A.J. Hartley Act of WillAct of Will by A.J. Hartley

A.J. Hartley is best known as a writer of best-selling mystery-thriller novels, as a distinguished professor of Shakespeare in the English Department at University of North Carolina, and as editor of the Shakespeare Bulletin published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Hartley’s theater expertise is readily apparent in Act of Will, the first book of his first fantasy series.

It’s Will Hawthorne’s 18th birthday and he is finally a man. Today he hopes to be promoted to playing male parts and penning plays for his acting company. But, O how full of briars is this working-day world! Will instead finds himself on the run from The Empire, dashing across rooftops in a dress and blond curly wig with an arrow stuck in his thigh. As good luck would have it, he’s rescued by a strange troop of a different type, and off he goes to have adventures, to (reluctantly) fight evil, and to learn that all the world is not a stage.

I liked Act of Will from the very first paragraph. That’s kind of surprising because Will Hawthorne is not my kind of hero. Not only does he have no heroic qualities, but he has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever: he’s arrogant, selfish, unscrupulous, lazy, immature, thin, weak, and cowardly. He is true only to his own self. The only things he does well are to BS his way out of tight spots and to run like hell when he can’t talk his way out. When a hero is called for, Will’s first concern is how to remove himself from the situation in order to save his own skin. Will Hawthorne is, quite simply, not a likeable person. It’s no wonder he has no friends, and not much of a life either.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBut Will is so open, blunt, and unapologetic about his inglorious personality that he somehow ends up being kind of disarmingly charming and you’re always hoping that perhaps he’s got just a scrap of mettle deep inside that might find its way to the surface. Occasionally he manages to screw his courage to the sticking place, but for every time he does something remotely heroic, he does something equally cowardly.

But what really kept me reading Act of Will is that the writing is altogether perfect. I would expect no less from an English/Shakespeare professor, but it’s so rarely that I can say this that I feel the need to point it out. The prose flows trippingly along and it’s funny. I liked Will’s cynical and sarcastic voice (it’s written in the first person). This could have been so easily overdone, but I found that I didn’t tire of it. The dialogue, both internal and external, is crisp and believable.

I took my mug, sauntered over to the table where the others sat, swinging the crossbow roguishly by its strap, and cast Renthrette an easy smile. She might as well have been wearing her armor, because it glanced off and fell in some dustless corner.

The writing style is clearly Dr. Hartley’s greatest talent. So for this reason, I found Act of Will to be delightful and entertaining and worth my time. However, there was a problem with Act of Will which I have seen before in first fantasy novels written by authors who are popular in other genres: too many plot points wouldn’t hold up to high scrutiny. For example, it is never explained (nor does Will ever wonder) why the magic sword and staff that have gotten them out of some tricky spots before can’t be used the same way in similar tricky spots. We get several clues about the origin and powers of the evil raiders who are terrorizing three countries, but never a full disclosure. And how is it that Will’s otherwise normal horse could have, according to the map in the front of the book, carried him nearly 300 miles in 24 hours … with a full night’s sleep in the middle, and apparently without any ill effects on either Will or the horse.

There are a few other sloppy spots that the editor should have noticed: in one scene Will gets down from a wagon that he had already dismounted two pages previously, there were times when characters with no magical powers seemed to suddenly and unnaturally translocate, and the maneuvers and proceedings of the last battle scene were an improbable fiction. I have no idea why authors who are popular in other genres might fall guilty to the Sloppy Fantasy Plot Syndrome. It troubles me to speculate, so I’ll choose to believe it’s just coincidence.

So. … To read, or not to read; that is the question… And this is the short and the long of it: Act of Will is like a Shakespearean comedy — really entertaining, very funny in places, contains an occasional cheesy monologue, and uses several unbelievable plot devices. Act of Will is a bit clumsy, but I found its style appealing. So far I like this series and willingly could waste my time in it.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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