The Holy Empire of Mann, ruled by the Holy Matriarch Sasheen, is slowly but surely conquering all the lands bordering the Mideres Sea. One of the last areas desperately holding out against the Empire’s onslaught is the island of Khos, and it’s on this island that Nico, a teenager living with his mother and a succession of her boyfriends, decides to run away from home and create a better life for himself. But living on the streets turns out to be harder than he expected, especially when his first attempted robbery goes horribly wrong. When Ash, the intended victim of Nico’s botched burglary, surprisingly offers to take him on as an apprentice, thereby saving him from cruel punishment, it’s an easy decision for Nico to make – even if this means that he will enter the order of Roshun, a secretive religious sect that’s equal parts Zen monks and elite assassins tasked with enacting vendetta if one of their clients is killed. Unbeknownst to Nico, his life is about to get even more complicated, because halfway across the world, the Holy Matriarch’s own son has just murdered a young noblewoman, who also happens to be one of the Roshun’s clients…
Col Buchanan’s debut Farlander, book one of the Heart of the World series, is a promising but somewhat uneven series opener. Some aspects of this novel are extremely well done, and others don’t work quite as well. There’s a lot to like here, but the final product doesn’t completely gel.
World-building is one of Farlander’s biggest strengths, offering a large new fantasy universe that features gunpowder and airships but very little in the way of magic. The countries and islands of the Mideres Sea are all well-defined and intriguing: the island of Khos where Nico’s story starts; the hinterlands where Sasheen’s son commits his unfortunate murder; the isle of Cheem where the Roshun order has its inventively hidden headquarters; the city of Q’os, heart of the Holy Empire of Mann… All these places are distinct and well-defined locales that together provide a great stage for Farlander’s story. Even more promising are the hints of the world’s history, including details about the origins of both the Empire and the Roshun cult, which will probably be fleshed out further in future books in the series. The world of Farlander is simply fascinating, and not nearly all of its details and secrets are fully explained yet in this first book, which may be the main reason readers will want to read further into the Heart of the World series.
In terms of characters, Farlander is a mixed bag. Nico is essentially a fantasy template that will hold little interest for most experienced fantasy readers — and it’s unfortunate that his story takes up most of this novel. Ash, the titular “farlander” who becomes Nico’s master, is much more interesting — old and ill but still a fearsome warrior who is determined to do the right thing, train an apprentice and uphold the order’s contract, even though the odds are firmly stacked against him. The principal characters on the Empire side are so villainous they border on caricatures (a former Patriarch’s name was Nihilis), but Ché, who is unfortunately only introduced towards the end of the novel, is more interesting and probably the most fascinating character in the novel. Strangely, some characters seem to be introduced for a certain purpose, which they then utterly fail to deliver on — although it’s quite possible that this will happen in future volumes in the series.
The oddest aspect of Farlander is its uneven pacing: sometimes Col Buchanan zips through scenes at a very rapid pace, and at others he slows down to go into great detail. Occasionally, it seems as if he is showing fragments of a larger story without filling in the space between them. For example, the story practically glosses over how Nico settles in as an apprentice in the Roshun order, something another writer might take a few chapters to set up: one moment Nico’s walking into the dormitory for the first time (meeting one character who becomes a central part of the plot and one that inexplicably disappears from view), and before you know it, he’s already so far along in his training that he’s ready to take an important test. Also, Col Buchanan often doesn’t show more than just the most important characters and events, giving Farlander a strange, almost bare-bones feeling, as if entire chapters and characters were cut out of it somewhere along the way. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with brevity in this age of endless fantasy tomes — after all many authors would probably have turned this story into an 800 page novel, and not necessarily for the better — but occasionally Farlander feels like it’s on fast-forward. What’s especially odd is the fact that Buchanan occasionally slams on the brakes and goes into great detail, e.g. describing Ash and Nico’s travel to Cheem aboard an airship in more detail than anything that came before, and especially towards the end of the novel, when several chapters focus in great detail on one prolonged action scene. Admittedly, both of these offer some of Farlander’s most exciting reading, but they’re a very noticeable contrast with the pacing of most of the rest of the novel.
Two more details not strictly related to the story, one positive and one negative: the artwork for this novel is gorgeous, including a striking cover illustration by Steve Stone and a beautiful map of the world that does something I don’t recall seeing before in fantasy: it shows the curve of the planet, with space, stars and moons above it. This gives the impression that there are more solid world-building details on the way — lurking over the horizon, so to speak. On the negative side, the copy-editing in this novel was a bit careless, including a handful of grammar, punctuation and spelling errors which would be okay for an uncorrected galley but not for the finished copy I was reading. This was doubly disappointing because it sometimes took away from my enjoyment of Col Buchanan’s somewhat formal but overall very solid and atmospheric prose — and surprising because Tor’s books rarely if ever have this issue.
Regardless, Farlander is a promising start to the Heart of the World series. Occasionally the final execution isn’t as polished as it could be, but its fascinating new fantasy world and occasional flashes of great writing indicate that you might want to keep an eye on where Col Buchanan is taking this story. Farlander isn’t an unqualified winner, but I’m still sufficiently intrigued to give the next book in the series a try.