I love action oriented fantasy and I love character driven fantasy. Those two don’t often go together. But when an author melds the two it can be pretty amazing. Tavern is one of those rare fantasy books that melds one part action and one part character oriented fantasy but then goes and adds a big heaping dose of heart to make you fall in love with it.
“Xelnath of the Gnarled Root—a tavern owner, information broker, healer, and guildmaster of the Blackwind Company—has found a place, far better than the forest from which he came in the magical metropolis and city-state of Lladad in the Magiian Empire.
When a simple act of kindness draws the ire of a troubled assassin, his love-stricken Archmage father and an army of magically constructed golems, Xel must scheme with vipers of the high court, mingle with royalty at the castle, blackmail drug dealers in the slums, and fight assassins and mercenaries in the streets.
He needs to lean on the support of his motley crew of a dark elf assassin, a dragon pirate, a high elf royal, and a talking dog artificer to keep him from his own inner demons and doubts.” – Goodreads Blurb
Tavern is one of those books that sells you one thing and gives you something free as a bonus. It sells you a story about an Orc tavern owner (Xel) who runs a mercenary spy ring called The Blackwind Company out of his establishment, who happens to save some people from assassination and manages to get himself and his crew caught up in an attempt to bring down the city’s ruling family. It’s a story about a man (orc), his business (tavern and merc company), and what comes when they get swept up in local politics. But then you realize you’re also getting a story about friendship, the struggles self-doubt, and racism. What you also get is a story about life with all it’s beauty and ugliness.
The narrative itself is fun and entertaining. There’s just the right mix of action character development to keep you reading one chapter after the next. It is something of a fantasy mystery with the characters trying to get to the bottom of the attempted assassinations, and political fantasy with the upheaval the assassination attempts stir up. It’s also a story about friendship and overcoming odds which I’ll talk about more below. And it’s the story of one orc, trying to make his way as a tavern owner and guild leader in a world that doesn’t fully trust him.
Xelnath of the Gnarled Root Clan is the heart and soul of Tavern. Xel is an orc who left his homeland to settle in the city of Lladad. His background is one of pain and bullying at the hands of his peers because his magic rune is perceived to be a source of evil. But life in Lladad doesn’t start well for him either and he suffers beatings there too until he is eventually found and trained by a mysterious blind master. Soon he recovers and is able to get on his feet, make a small name for himself, and establish tavern and mercenary guild. By the time the story starts he’s pretty successful yet still filled with loads of self-doubt.
Xel is assisted in his endeavors by the members of his merc company (the dragon pirate, dark elf assassin, high elf royal, and talking dog artificer mentioned above) as well as a number of the city’s district leaders who also happen to be the children of the Duke. The secondary characters are numerous and serve to flesh out Xel’s character and his limitations, as well as to explore some of the themes noted below. These secondary characters are not very deep in terms of characterization, but they don’t need to be given the bent of the story. This isn’t to say they are shallow – they do have nuance and flaws, it’s just to say they are not the focus and instead serve to assist in Xel’s development.
One of the few complaints I have with Tavern is with the numerous secondary characters. Now, let me start by saying I REALLY liked them all and they all add really cool flare to the group that makes up the guild. But, it felt a little strange that so many of them come from powerful backgrounds. I won’t say much else in order not to give too much away, but I wondered at Xel’s ability to draw so many high placed people to him. Then again maybe that’s an integral part of Xel’s character.
Writing And POV
Tavern is told from Xel’s perspective throughout and in the third person. In a day when so many single POV narratives are being told from the first person this seemed an interesting shift for me. You can still get inside the character’s head, but the POV of the story takes you in other directions.
One aspect of Munden’s writing I particularly enjoyed was Xel’s voice. Xel is an immigrant to the city. He’s from a different people with a different language and culture. As such he speaks differently. And though Xel has worked on how he talks he frequently falls into speech patterns and mannerisms that are considered a little crass or uncultured. This feeds into some of the racism Xel encounters throughout the book. It’s a great example of how the way someone speaks (especially with a second language) is not an indicator of their intelligence or ability. It really helps to mark Xel and set him apart from others he encounters in the narrative.
In contrast many of the other characters have no distinct issues with speech patterns or mannerisms. This is true even though a number of them are also immigrants and from other people’s and cultures (such as the elves and dwarves of the group). I would have liked to have seen some differentiation there, but at the same time maybe it was on purpose as a way to really set Xel apart.
Munden’s writing style is on point and direct. It fits the themes and tone and plot of the book really well. There were a few editorial issues but not many and they don’t deter from the story.
Magic in this world has its source in Aether. it is found in everyone’s blood to different degrees but not everyone has figure out how to wield it. It is brought forth in ways unique to each individual through rune’s within the person. Not everyone knows their rune, or the depth of their pool of aether. It is only once both are discovered that they can truly wield it.
I REALLY liked this magic system as it is one that in theory at least is open to everyone in the world. While magic systems that can only be accessed by certain special individuals make for great stories with powerful characters, this system allows for anyone and everyone to have magical power if they can discover how to unlock it. It’s kind of a leveling of the playing field to some extent. Not totally, because there are definitely those with more power and skill than others (a lot more) but it normalizes magic a little which makes for some interesting story possibilities.
While set in the world of Dargath, Tavern spends most of its time in the city of Lladad. It’s a city with multiple districts (Port, Guard, Common, Crafter, Merchant, Military) built in ever widening circles, each run by sons (and one daughter) of the ruling Duke and Duchess. The narrative takes the characters and the reader through each of these districts, each with it’s own sights and sounds and smells, each with its own set of inhabitants, each with its own distinct qualities and drawbacks. Lladad, an urban landscape shaped as a circle, becomes a hub within which the story spins.
We do get glimpses of the wider world, including Xel’s homeland, and mentions of the lands of the elves and dwarves as well as the nations’s capital, but these additional snippets only add a little detail and color to the background of the characters. For Tavern the core of the story is the wold within Lladad.
Lladad and Dargath are filled with all manner of creatures. humans, orcs, dragon kind, elves, dwarves, rock golemns, and many many other humanoids that are new and unique to Munden’s story. It’s a world in which they all have long histories and mingle and interact. It’s a world where there is some separation and integration. And it makes for some interesting dynamics.
While the plot was fun and entertaining, it was some of the themes woven into it that I enjoyed most about Tavern. Friendship is a major theme throughout. From almost page one friendship comes to the fore. For Xel and the members of the Blackwind Company friendship is paramount. They look out for each other, care for each other and genuinely seem to love each other. It is contrasted with Xel’s life prior to coming to Lladad, and contrasted with some of the antagonists of the story who lack close relationships in their lives and suffer for it. Xel and his friends lean on each other and take strength from one another and yes, they take risks for each other. Major life threatening risks. What makes it even more special is when you discover more about each character’s background and how unlikely it would be for some of them to befriend each other outside of their current circumstances.
Self-doubt is another major theme. Xel is plagued by self-doubt. It is a constant voice in his head that he isn’t good enough, that he doesn’t deserve what he has (especially his friends), that he is a let down or burden for those he is closest to. At times this constant self-doubt seems to get tiresome, but then you remember that’s what it’s really like. Self-doubt isn’t something that easily goes away or is easily “fixed” which makes Munden’s use of it in this book so on point. If it wasn’t constantly in your face it wouldn’t seem real, and wouldn’t have the right impact. I was glad to see a book use such a common personality trait in so many people as a trait for it’s main character. It shows how something that can totally consume so many of us doesn’t have to be ignored in our fiction.
Race also rears it’s head in this book and it’s something you just can’t miss. It’s seen first and foremost with Xel. As an orc he’s looked at as inferior by many. He’s an outsider foreign to the city. His mannerisms don’t math everyone else’s. His way of speaking is looked down on. He is presupposed to be a brute, uneducated, and crass, and dirty. He’s tribal. All of these examples have parallels in our world and in our cultures today. Xel is constantly subjected to both casual and overt racism. At times he ignores it, and at other times must address it. But it is a continual presence in his life that cannot be overlooked.
As I come to the end of this review which is already too long I’m realizing how much I’ve left out. I guess that can’t be helped at this point. Let me close by saying this book surprised me. As I noted, I went in with certain expectations and came away with a surprise or two. If you like action and mystery coupled with character focused stories I think you’ll enjoy Tavern. If you like books with heart that appeal to friendship and overcoming pain and adversity I think you may just love Tavern. Either way I hope you’ll give this little gem a chance.