Wytchfire by Michael Meyerhofer
Wytchfire, the first book in Michael Meyerhofer’s DRAGONKIN TRILOGY, is the image of a classic-style epic fantasy of the sort that hasn’t seemed to show up as often since George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb largely took over for Tolkien as guiding lights of the genre. It’s a fun and lively story, but the reader’s enjoyment may depend on how much s/he enjoys old-school epic fantasy and its associated tropes.
I happen to like old-school epic fantasy, so for me Wytchfire was a fun read (even slightly nostalgic, like revisiting the old neighborhood and finding little has changed). The novel has an entertaining premise, a relatable protagonist, and an engagingly action-packed narrative. The plot is essentially that a race of long-lived, pointy-eared, forest-dwelling people called sylves occasionally give birth to dangerous magical beings called Shel’ai. These Shel’ai are hated and feared for their mutations, and so the sylves tend to abandon them as children or at least exile them from the homeland. Eventually, a charismatic leader of Shel’ai gathers a crew of them together with the goal of hacking out a new homeland for themselves. To do this, they make use of near-forgotten magic to transform certain of their number into Nightmares, creatures of impossible magical strength. However, the newest Nightmare gets cold feet on the whole bloody conquest thing and goes running off into the blue… and right into one Rowen Locke, an orphan boy who has recently failed in his ambition to become a knight. Together, they have to prevent the Shel’ai from achieving their warlike ends.
This is a light, quick-moving, and entertaining book. It’s also tropey as hell, right down to the orphan boy with the magic sword, the colorful sidekick(s), and the world-weary-yet-vulnerable elven hottie. Meyerhofer does the usual ’90s fantasy thing in that he changes the names of bog-standard magical races while keeping most associated ideas at strict Dungeons and Dragons standard (elves are still pretty and haughty, dwarves are still bluff and axe-wielding, orcs are still ugly and warlike). If you’re looking for originality, this isn’t it (in fact, if you’ve read a few examples of this kind of thing before, Wytchfire’s story can get very predictable in places). On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with using some old tropes, and Meyerhofer makes them work for him in this context. Using familiar fantasy races allows him to forego lengthy explanations, and despite how many (many, many) times I’m sure we’ve all seen the “old sword that’s more than it seems,” there’s a genuine thrill in seeing it show up again.
Part of the appeal is Meyerhofer’s infectious enthusiasm: it’s clear that he really loves the subgenre and the traditional material, and if his novel doesn’t break a lot of new ground, it manages nonetheless to display something just as crucial: romanticism. Fantasy is a genre that is largely built on romanticism, and Wytchfire‘s primary goal is to feed it to the reader without affectation or complication. Meyerhofer seems to just love Ye Olde Adventure story, and wants to share that love with his readers. There’s a lot to be said for that approach, and it led me to forgive the book some of its derivative ideas.
The plotting is more of an issue. While Meyerhofer has poured some care into the book, it’s clear that he’s new to working on a storyline of this length (or perhaps complexity?), and lets himself get away with contrivances that more experienced authors would not. Too many coincidences are handwaved as being the result of destiny (there’s only so many times one can hang that particular lampshade), and established characterization has a noticeable tendency toward malleability whenever Rowen Locke needs to end up in a certain place or social position. This is unfortunate, as Meyerhofer otherwise has a gift for writing supporting characters, with El’rash’lin, Jalist Hewn, and Hráthbam all standing out with good designs and strong voices. The central characters aren’t weak, exactly, but they hew close to the usual young man’s wish fulfillment types. It’s probably enough to say that almost everyone in the book seems to end up either respecting or unjustly hating Rowen, and Silwren is naked so often that she begins to look suspiciously exhibitionist.
Overall, Wytchfire is certainly a fun, enthusiastic romp, but it’s also derivative and struggles with some usual beginning-novelist issues. As an easygoing example of bread-and-butter fantasy tropes, though, one could do a lot worse. It could have used a few more drafts, I think, but I nevertheless had fun with the book, and fans of older epic fantasy in particular will find something to enjoy.
Final note: I listened to the audiobook narrated by Craig Beck, who did a marvelous job on the whole. He did mispronounce a word once in a great while, but given the number of unfamiliar terms, it’s hard to fault him too much for that.