Dennis L. McKiernan’s Mithgar books are among the most beloved in all of fantasy fiction. The Iron Tower includes the first three novels set in the world of Mithgar — collected in a single volume for the first time — with an all-new introduction by the author.
So I follow a twitter account that tweets about “feminist fantasy.” As a lifelong lover of this genre, I will be the first to tell you that fantasy has a couple problems, two of them being a lack of women as strong main characters and a near absolute lack of people of color in general. Whiteness and maleness are celebrated in fantasy, for whatever reason. Anne Bishop is one writer who is good at switching these norms up a bit (though some would argue she writes paranormal romance), but many male authors stick to these tropes (my all-time favorite, for instance, David Eddings, loved these tropes, despite writing a great heroine in Polgara the Sorceress). I don’t read a lot of male authors these days, partly out of coincidence, partly because my favorite genre (YA, of course!) is inundated with women, and partly because I find it’s rare that I like the way male authors write their girls/women. So when Feminist Fantasy retweeted someone saying this was their favorite series, I put it on hold at the library and got to it. Sadly, this is most certainly not feminist fantasy, but it is enjoyable in its own way.
The Dark Tide focuses mostly on Tuck, a Warrow (maybe similar to a Hobbit in looks only) from the Boskydells, who stands all of 3’3″ and has eyes like sapphires. We see Tuck’s progression from novice archer to seasoned Thornwalker, and it’s an interesting journey, even if Tuck seems to cry through a lot of it. There are stirrings and rumors within the Bosky that Modru, the Great Evil, has returned after thousands of years. Everyone thought he’d been vanquished, but that’s never the case with Great Evil, is it? Goodreads reviews will tell you that McKiernan’s novels are basically a ripoff of Tolkien, but I’ve never liked Tolkien (blasphemy, I know), and so I found McKiernan’s work much more readable than Tolkien’s ponderous, wordy adventures. So honestly, having never read anything of Tolkien’s beyond The Hobbit and half of Fellowship of the Ring, I can’t judge the similarities. It’s always fun for me to discover new worlds in fantasy novels, and it was no different with this one. Your standard races apply in Mithgar–Men (King Aurion, his sons Galen and Igon), Elves (Gildor), Warrows (Tuck, Danner, Patrel), Trolls, Ogres, etc–and the minions of the Great Evil are pretty gross and scary-sounding. Let’s leave the positives at 1) this is a very readable adventure, and 2) I enjoyed myself along the way.
Now for the negatives, and there are a few. Every hero in this novel is male and white. There is one black man, and he’s a puppet of the Great Evil. There is one significant woman, a sweet-tempered blond princess, Laurelin, who everyone loves, and who I knew would be kidnapped from the moment she was introduced. There are literally no other women of import in the first novel. What I like about Bishop’s novels is not only is there a matriarchy (yay!), but the Queen insists that women be taught to defend themselves. Maybe if Laurelin could have used even a knife, she wouldn’t have been such easy prey. Alas. This leads me to the very heavy-handed foreshadowing. Two major events, including Laurelin’s kidnapping, are very, very obviously going to happen, and you know this early on in the novel. Tuck is constantly going on about omens and portents, and they always seem to come to pass, so you have some idea as to what’s going to happen, even if it’s vague. I am someone who doesn’t mind spoilers though, so this didn’t bother me as much as it might bother others. Lastly, the editing in this book is terrible. There are frequent misspellings, typos, and general errors you’d expect in an ARC, not a nearly fifteen-year-old finished novel from a big publisher.
There are no blurred lines in this novel. There are Good People and Bad People and no in-between. There is no complex magical system or world-building, no intricate political maneuvering, just straight up war and death and the like. This is traditional fantasy in pretty much every way, so make sure you know that going in. I needed a break from anything complex, so this worked for me, and it might work for you too. The next novel in the omnibus, Shadows of Doom, continues right where The Dark Tide leaves off, so onward and upward, as they say.