Harbinger is the first novel by Shea Ford, and it’s a decent fantasy romp. Ford definitely has promise, and I will likely try some of her future books.

However, Harbinger itself was just shy of excellent. I enjoyed reading the book, but there were several things that made me less than enthusiastic:

  1. The main character is constantly pushing aside his love interest for very little reason. Granted, his upbringing was not conducive to a positive self-image but come on. It’s one thing to have a character act like an idiot and then learn from it. It’s another to have a main character act like an idiot over and over to the point that you realize that it’s not the character’s fault, it’s the need for a plot. Not cool.
  2. Although a big conflict in the book was cleared up at the end, everyone started off on the first steps to the Next Big Thing, clearly marking this as the beginning of a series. Leaving your readers wanting more is one thing, but this was suspiciously close to a “to be continued.” And there is nothing I loathe more than stories whose authors don’t have the discipline to keep things contained.
  3. The author falls afoul of what I like to think of as the Eddings Race Fallacy: that is, there are several distinct lands whose people are largely homogeneous (extremely physically homogeneous, although Ford manages to avoid the emotional homogeneity that plagues Eddings), despite the lands being relatively small and close together. Each land is additionally dominated by a single geographical feature (“the mountains”, “the forest”, “the sea”, “the desert”, etc.). Although it is certainly possible to distill things down to make a point, for this novel it just feels like laziness on the author’s part. The characters are complex and interesting enough that the simplicity of the world stands out badly.

All that said, on the continuum of self-published novels that I’ve read recently (and even for some professionally published novels), Harbinger was actually a bright spot. I’m not sure if I will continue with the series once Ford publishes more, but I did enjoy my time with the book and I really liked the characters (main character’s juvenile “she’ll never love me, so I must push her away!” actions aside). The copy editing was also very good; I vaguely recall one obvious mis-spelling, but that’s on par with a lot of traditionally published fiction. If you are bored and don’t mind mild cliff-hangers, you could spend a couple bucks in a far worse way.

Plot summary

The plot summary contains spoilers! Show it anyway.

The evil King Crevan rules the country with an iron fist, supported by his Sovereign Five, each of whom governs one area (Unforgivable Mountains, Grandforest, High Seas, Whitebone Desert, and Endless Plains, with Midlan governed directly by Crevan). One of the few thorns in his side is the Dragongirl, and after hearing that she was last seen in the Unforgivable Mountains he has a captured seer look her up and discovers she is being sheltered in a particular village. He sends his ruthless war leader Titus to raze the village, kill the Dragongirl, and take over governing the mountains.

Kael, the hero of our story, has meanwhile been living a crap life. He only has half the red-hair that marks people as mountain-born, and is not as strong or agile as his fellows. Two in particular (one named Marc) torment him mercilessly, and despite his best efforts he not only fails to bag a deer and prove himself a hunter, but breaks his bow (which was supposed to last him for life). Disgraced and stuck living with his grandfather Amos the healer, he finds a gorgeous injured girl who he helps heal (turns out he’s a Whisperer, a magic-user whose existence is banned by Crevan). When she wakes up she tells him her name is Kyleigh and that she’s a renegade night out to mess with Crevan’s rule.

Titus shows up and razes the village, and Kael and Kyleigh flee. Titus forces Marc to kill his partner-in-crime, as an induction into his troops.

Kael swears he will revenge himself on Titus, but Kyleigh convinces him he needs an army to do so. In search of said army, they head for the coast, taking up with some merchants as mutual protection. The head merchant’s daughter Aerilyn takes a liking to both, and the crude minstrel Jonathan also takes a liking to them. Kyleigh tries to convince Kael that he’s a Wright, a Whisperer who has all three talents of healing, crafting, and warmaking at his disposal, but he refuses to believe her.

The lead merchant is killed as the caravan heads to the coast, and when it comes time to bid it farewell Aerilyn and Jonathan come along for funnsies. The foursome discovers that the High Seas are held in abject poverty, with only a few people at the top of the pyramid even having access to food (fishing having been outlawed as stealing).

The ship they take is attacked by pirates, which it turns out was Kyleigh’s plan all along because she knows Captain Lysander. Lysander agrees to help them when he hears that Kael is a Wright, because he was cursed by a witch and needs a whisperer to help him out (whisperer’s being immune to magic).

Kael is trained by the one whisperer on the crew who has no hands (and is thus useless against the witch), and he finally accepts that he’s a badass.

The witch’s island is surrounded by a storm, and Kael is thrown overboard while they fight their way through it. Kyleigh dives in after him, and he discovers that she’s a shapeshifter and her second form is a dragon. Surprise!

They have a big throw-down with the witch, ending up with her dead by Kael’s hand, then head off for a bit of fun at the classic pirate hidden cove, which Lysander and crew have been unable to visit for freaking ever, thanks to his curse.

While there, Lysander tries to woo Aerilyn, Kael is an idiot about Kyleigh, and eventually they all go on their merry way to take down the leader of the High Seas. With a bit of cunning, crazy luck, and the help of a mysteriously drab man named Geist, a master of disguise and anything else the plot requires of him.

They succeed in giving the evil duke the boot without killing him, and leadership of the High Seas is signed over to one of his “managers” (former merchants) named Chaucer.

Lysander and Aerilyn finally hook up. Kael is an ass to Kyleigh, and she runs off in a huff to the isle formerly belonging to the witch where they agree to let her live in the abandoned castle and serve as their protector (swearing meanwhile that she will wait for Kael to come to her forever if she must). Meanwhile, Kael runs off towards the desert in hopes of scaring up an army now that he has established a way for the army to get place to place (the ships of the High Seas).