review: lady of the helm by t.o. munro

When I first started writing Nysta, she wasn’t an elf. For a long time, she was human. I set it in a city of alleys and there was no magic. That changed when I decided I was sick of elves. Sick of Tolkien-style elves, anyway. What’s with the bows and the overly-graceful descriptions? They’re fantasy’s angels, and I’d had enough of that.

So, I made Nysta an elf. And messed with all expectations of what elves might be. It’s also why I pluralise them as elfs. Because I know how much that irritates a lot of people who don’t know that was a Tolkienism.

What has this got to do with T.O. Munro’s Lady of the Helm? Well, Munro has added something you don’t normally see in a fantasy setting. And he’s taken it from its original source and completely redefined it to suit his world. Yet, where I chose an elf, he chose a medusa. That’s right. Right out of Greek myth, and he threw it into a world which is so far removed from Greek myth that it’s got more in common with Tolkien. It even has elves in it.

Sure, she’s not the main character, but Munro’s medusa is probably the most intriguing character of his series. I’d have read a series devoted just to her. Her story, one of being cursed, exiled, then reforming her own legend as she rises in the ranks of an army of evil-doers, is a story which would be well worth the read and, after finishing Book 1 in this series, I was a little disappointed to not have had more of her story. However, given the Medusa theme to the next title, I’m certainly looking forward to reading Book 2.

If I told you the plot of this, you’d yawn at me. You really would. Essentially: Niarmit, the haunted heroine, reclaims her way after straying into rogue-style shenanigans, searches and finds mystic artefact only she can use to defeat the evil and then confronts said evil at the end.

Yawn, I hear you say.

But that’s not quite how it happens. Munro tips your expectations on the head and cleverly defies conventions to come up with something raw and new. I can’t tell you, because you need to read it yourself. But I can say it’s not quite how I expected this to end. Especially given the chaotic central character. Chaotic not at her core, but in that she begins the story as a priestess throwing off her healing powers to become an assassin, only to pop back into her dress for some reason and become a priestess again. Sort of. I don’t really know what she’s doing and I’m personally hoping we don’t go down the path of woman-as-nurse. So far, Munro has avoided that, but it scares me when female characters have uber-powerful healing abilities. Reminds me too much of my younger days of mmo gaming where people would show up with “Hi, I’m your DPS for the day. This is my girlfriend. She rolled a priest because girls love to play nurse.”

But that’s a different rant and is unrelated (reading this now, I think it was unfair to have written that minor rant in here, but left it in because I'm strange like that...) to anything Munro has written in Lady of the Helm. Also, given that there's more than one central female character, you can't accuse him of going down the route of casual cliche. (T.O. Munro has written about the challenges of writing female characters in a blog post on FantasyBookCritic.com - read it here)

The magic artefact? That was brilliant. And brilliantly described and executed. Probably the finest example of what you should be doing with magic artefacts in a fantasy setting these days – push the boundaries of expectation. I felt pushed right up against the wall and prodded with a fist to the face.

I read this one really quickly and I really liked it. I loved the fact you saw both sides of the action, not just the good guys fighting faceless evils. As such, I never felt he was bound by the rules which often tie fantasy down. Especially when you're using elves (elfs - ha!). He keeps the action flowing, the dialogue going, and the intrigue building to an epic climax. You can’t go wrong with it.

Get it before it turns you into stone.

- published 25/05/2014

Update:
I'm joyfully happy to say you should TOTALLY be reading this series. T.O. Munro is a name I am certain will come up more often in the future. As Indie writers jostle for supremacy and recognition, I can't see him being ignored. This series is an amazing story and you really need to give it a try. Some of the more common Indie writers these days are writing in the familiar grooves which show definite influences from gaming (Skyrim, mostly) and some television, but T.O. Munro is entirely in a class of his own. This is what you get when Indie writers do it right. You get something special and genre-bending.

Trust me. You need to read this.


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