Cameo Rowe,
Defenders of the Realm: The Mystic Arts Tournament
(self-published, 2008)

In the mythical Kingdom of Gaea, various realms have varying amounts of clout, prestige and political power. The White Realm is the seat of the High Priestess, Sharae, who is the religious leader and head of the Mystics. Mystics are trained in a blend of both martial arts and magic. The best Mystics become Kindred, who keep the peace, settle disputes and have a huge amount of influence across all of Gaea.

But there is trouble in Gaea. The High Guardian, or military leader, got caught up in greed and ambition, and developed his own group of followers, the Occult. Many were killed in the name of "justice," and settling disputes often meant slaughtering all parties. He was caught, convicted of treason and sent to the most secure dungeon in Gaea, but his followers do not fade away. Led by the Dark Witch and her protege, Adamorte, who is really someone else. The husband of the High Priestess is Gavreel, and they secretly have a son, Aleron. In a plot by the Occult, Gavreel and Aleron are murdered -- or so everyone thinks.

After the death of Gavreel and apparent death of Aleron, the boy ends up in a small village, where he recovers and is tutored by Raff and the retired High Priestess, Weaver. Meanwhile, the current High Priestess wants to draw the new Occult leader and her protege out into the open, and she resurrects an old tradition: The Mystic Arts Tournament. This tournament pit's the best young Mystics of Gaea against one another in a fierce, non-lethal competition, with the winner to then be trained personally by the High Priestess. As the tournament nears, we get to know the top contenders, including Adamorte and, yes, Aleron. At the same time, political alliances are shifting and solidifying. The Dark Witch appears to be leading the Occult into dominance.

In the beginning of the book, two things left me with an initial bad impression. First, the author often uses an objective third-person and omniscient voice, and that gives the story a very distant, impersonal and colorless tone. I gradually adjusted to this, but it almost made me stop reading about 10 pages in. (In contrast, my current reading experience, D. Barkley Briggs's The Book of Names (Legends of Karac Tor) , grabbed me with lyrical, rich prose and realistic, very personalized characters.)

Second, the characters often have a name, title and nickname, and the author uses them interchangeably, in rapid alteration, with few pronouns. Until I got to know the characters, I found this confusing. An example is: Safer, the former High Guardian, Sovereign and the Dark One are all the same person.

Still, I'm glad I didn't toss this book out the window. Why?

Once I adjusted to the author's style and the issue with names, I found the characters to be fairly well developed and interesting. The concept of blending magic (mystic arts) with martial arts is interesting. During the tournament, which is described in detail, some of the moves are magical, some are traditional martial arts, and some are true combinations. The different competitors have different styles includes both factors, in varying proportions.

Books often end up as textual crescendos, with initial introduction of setting, fictional culture and characters, then moving on evolving the core issues of the book, followed by attempts to resolve them, an eventual resolution, and the aftermath. Detective stories can be exceptions, with Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective often encountering the murder within the first five pages. Anyway, Defenders of the Realm is in a very pronounced crescendo format, with a slow start, followed by a rapid increase in pace, and ending with the tournament. Given the adjustments needed by the reader, mentioned above, and the world-building needed to learn what is going on and who is who, impatient readers might well give up early. I ended up sticking with it, and glad that I did. What started with a whisper, ended with a roar.

There is only mild flirting in the book, with no sexual content. However, there is considerable violence. The tournament itself is rough, but nothing too graphic there. Some of the military skirmishes, though, are harsher and more brutal.

The book definitely has portions of it, specifically the tournament and the training for it, that have a video game feel to them. It probably could be spun into a video game fairly easily. Given this, much of its appeal might be to older teen and young-adult readers. However, if a teen or young adult has read quite a bit of fantasy fare, he or she will likely note that many stock fantasy elements are present: the supposedly-dead prince raised by a wise old man who grows into the hero; different realms within a kingdom with shifting alliances. It is the blending of magic and martial arts that gives this book some air of originality and distinctiveness.

review by
Chris McCallister

28 February 2009

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