Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark
About The Book
Invaders from the north. A missing son. A conspiracy that spans centuries. And old soldier, Mika, has only a murderous pimp and a treacherous half-breed to help him.
An uneasy truce between the four races has lasted for twenty years.
The Dusters, a race of cat people from the north, have invaded and now former soldier Mika must make a grim choice: take up the sword again or watch everything he loves burn.
With his old friend from the military, Gair, and a mysterious, half-breed Duster, Mika makes his way from his Northern border home to the southern capital, across the frozen wastes of the Duster homelands, and deep underground where the legendary Gallochs dwell, desperate to unravel the mystery of the invasion and how it’s connected to his origin. Hunted by his own kind and unable to trust his companions, he finds that to save his family, he may have to defeat not only the Duster army but the very Gods themselves.
Adam Stemples’ Duster: Mika Bare-Hand (Duster) starts out like a children’s story, but a real children’s story from back when kids were tough, and they liked their stories hard edged. Stories like it puts the grit in their porridge, scares them a bit and keeps them guessing. But then again, those children’s stories weren’t really for children, and this one is for adults.
The prologue is wonderfully written, and it brought to mind a little of the Brothers Grimm, Ann Leckie in the Raven Tower, and Joe Abercrombie. This might seem like a bizarre conflation, but read Duster and see what you think. It has a powerful beginning.
Duster follows Mika, a middle-aged former soldier, and family man. He has a wife he cherishes and three sons of wildly different character. When Mika’s sons are threatened, he is forced to spring back into warrior action to save them. He soon finds that his family has an unexpected, frightening significance that ties into that powerful beginning I mentioned.
I admired the writing from the first page. Stemple has a very spare, economic style, which moves the pace along smartly, and his use of language is excellent. As Twain might say, he chooses the right words. For example, this passage from Mika, “I’d rather face a whole clouder of Duarsteri than my dear, sweet wife when she’s angry.” Stemple is not fancy in his prose here, but rather correct for the speaker (Mika, who is a soldier) and to the vernacular of his high-fantasy world. The Duarsteri are an antagonistic race of bipedal, cat-like beings, and a clouder is a group of cats. Another more pleasing example is, ““Remember you?” I said softly. I was looking in the fire, but her image burned in my mind.” There are a few other passages where a little poetry leaks into the writing—in the best way possible—such as in the prologue, but I do not wish to ruin the fun and quote it here.
Duster’s structure includes two story-within-the-story elements. One is a mythologic in nature and the other involves the prehistory of Mika. Of course everything is tied together in the worst conceivable way for Mika’s familial happiness. I am a fan of this structure when it is used well, and have included it in my books. Stemple executes his narrative effectively with this device, parceling out information critical to the mystery within the story without ruining the overall pace.
Duster is a fun, fast, easy read. The story is engaging and the characters make a few surprising decisions. The downside to the strong pace and economy of the work is that the characters are not very round, nor are they dynamic. Mika does not appreciably change from start to end, and although he makes some interesting decisions, he is not given difficult moral challenges. This lack of character development limits thematic drive in the story, though the importance of family is not lost at any point, particularly in the last few lines, which are meaningful.
Takeaway: This book is for grown-ups that like fast paced fantasy, who remember their childhood but also the hard lessons they have learned since then. Fans of Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence should give this book consideration.
Lee has a background in physics and applied science, but has always enjoyed reading fiction. His first serious forays in writing came from dungeon mastering and high school drama club, although for nearly three decades as a geophysicist, he wrote only non-fiction. At the age of 25, Lee spent a prolonged period of time on the edge of death, had the last rights read to him, and enjoyed several near death experiences. Not even all the morphine could make him forget those. Lee enjoys rock climbing, cycling, hiking, swimming and writing. He is an Ironman Triathlete.