The Dark Thorn – Shawn Speakman
Published: Speakman Press
Publication Date: November 2011
Reviewed by Justin Hanvey
QUICK HIT – Set within a universe where Celtic myth and Arthurian legend come alive, Speakman’s novel is a fantasy epic of grand ambition. He has placed himself easily in the pantheon of other great fantasy authors such as Brooks, Salvatore, and Donaldson.The Dark Thorn is not Shawn Speakman’s first novel, but it is the first one he’s willing to share with an audience. It’s a fantasy epic which takes place in both modern day Seattle and the Otherworld of Celtic legend, the home of the Tuatha De Danann. Richard is the protagonist, a knight that lives as a homeless man on the streets of Seattle, and protects the portal to Annwn, the Otherworld. He is helped by a mysterious old man named Merle, and later the boy Bran, whose past is the catalyst for much of the action that happens in the novel. It is at once a modern-age fairy tale and an age-old story of how power and greed can corrupt even the most benevolent of people. Richard joins with Merle and Bran to bring balance to the worlds, and to protect the portal from forces of fey and Church (the Catholic Church to be exact) on both sides of the portal. The story is even more complicated than this, though, and even involves the son of Charles II, Philip Plantagenet; sent by his father on Crusade into Annwn, he quickly sets up a power base by some fairly insidious means which become apparent as the story goes on until the final blasphemous twist.
This is not a Christian novel, but it is a novel about religion and also extremism in any of its forms. Speakman is a strong believer in faith and its personal merit to our lives, but he is not a believer in extremism, in pushing faith on others, or making faith a weapon. His novel is very powerful in this aspect as it almost acts as a parable on doubt, faith, and where truth should be in our personal lives. But to call it a parable is to directly miss its beauty, for in many ways, especially in his descriptive prowess, this novel is a work of art. Annwn itself falls off the page into an elaborate tapestry right before the reader’s eyes. It is filled with beautiful places and terrible creatures. Seattle by comparison seems glum and almost two-dimensional, but you can see the love that the author, a resident of Seattle himself, has for the coastal city. His descriptive abilities especially take him past a debut novelist status. But then, having been mentored by the award-winning author Terry Brooks, who could expect any less? Brooks’ touch is seen throughout the book in the way magic is handled, in the snide comments of the fairy Snedeker, and in various shoutouts to Brooks himself.
There are very few flaws—some spelling mistakes and other things—but the novel is nevertheless a very strong debut. Richard especially plays like a take on Thomas Covenant, the protagonist of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: a man struggling with a dark past and an uncertain future. His cynicism and brokenness is balanced out by young Bran, a boy who is seeing this new world for the first time with the wonder of a child. Even when his wonder is tempered by pain, as in all things, this will lead to him being a stronger hero. Richard himself undergoes a softening, so to speak, and revelations learned throughout the story help him to begin to come to terms with his past.
If you like a good fantasy story, look no further. Right now the novel is only available for Kindle at Amazon, though, which is probably my biggest complaint, as the cover artwork is simply stunning and would look lovely on a hardcover novel sitting on your coffee table! But it’s balanced out by a rather cheap price, $6.99, which is very affordable in this current economy. A hardcover is eventually coming, Speakman promises, and he continues to work on the next novel in the series: The Everwinter Wraith, supposedly even better than Dark Thorn, which is hard to believe. He is also working on a short story for an anthology called Unfettered. Many of Speakman’s friends have come along to write in this anthology, including Brooks, Salvatore, Rothfuss, Sanderson, Butcher, Erikson and many more. The proceeds will go to pay for Shawn’s cancer treatments. It is refreshing and hopeful to see the fantasy-lit world coming together to help a friend out in this way.
The novel is a novel of hope, and its take on faith is refreshing. I hope to see more from this burgeoning author, and his wondrous world he’s created. Looking forward to the next novel.