A Quest of Heroes is a 2012 high fantasy novel written and published by Morgan Rice. This is the first novel in The Sorcerer’s Ring fantasy series by Rice, which has produced sixteen sequels to date, with her latest entry, The Gift of Battle, having followed in November 2014.
This book takes its cues from the works that cemented the “heroes journey” storytelling technique into the modern culture. There are shades of Tolkien and George RR Martin noticed and appreciated, but more importantly there are elements of the authors which inspired them: there are strong hints of influences of the epic Greek poems, strong hints of affection for the Odyssey, and iconography like the Dynasty Sword allude to Arthurian legends and folklore. There is a lot to unpack with this book from even just a meta-textual perspective, so much so that I’m genuinely shocked it hasn’t gotten more critical attention than it has: it’s a gold mine of world-building lovingly pieced together from fragments of the epic fantasy worlds that came before it, from an author who recognizes how those elements can fit together to make something fresh and new.
It took me a little while to get into this novel. It is a mammoth 346 pages long, and for the first 100 pages or so I was kind of scratching my head as to exactly what I thought of it, so much so that I did something I never do: I went online to see what other readers thought of it before I was done reading it. Usually I’ll wait till my review is cemented in my mind before allowing other conflicting points-of-view in, but this time I took exception. What I discovered is that there is an odd split online regarding this book and the series as whole. While it’s not a perfect divide, reviewers on Amazon tend to adore it while readers on Goodreads seem not to. This is even commented on by one Goodreads reviewer, whose review starts: “To be honest I am just so happy to see that the Goodreads community is a much better judge of good writing than Amazon.” When there’s that kind of dichotomy in a readership, I just have to know what’s going on, so I dove back in.
A lot of the disdain I saw in the negative reviews seems to come from the contradictory worldview that the author presents, often seemingly contradicting herself in the same paragraph. So with that in mind I actually started from the beginning of the book again and started to look out for things like that, and I think the majority of this book’s detractors are missing something: A Quest for Heroes revolves around the epic coming of age story of Thorgrin: one special boy, a 14 year old from a small village on the outskirts of the Kingdom of the Ring. Of key note is the protagonist’s age: he’s young and reads even younger, and the novel is ostensibly written from his point-of-view. As such I don’t see the contradictions that mount up as contradictions on the part of the author, but as Thorgrin’s understanding of the world being flawed and fractured, as the points-of-view of many children are. Now for this theory to have merit, the contradictions would have to slowly subside as Thorgrin gains age and maturity: and they do. They slowly regress until the point-of-view at the end is much more stable. This explains why on my first attempt the first hundred pages seemed so difficult, but on my later attempt was not.
I need to stop for a moment and point out what a masterful stroke that is on Rice’s part: this is a coming-of-age story in which as the narrator comes of age they transform from an unreliable narrator into a reliable one. That is brilliant. To my knowledge I have never seen that before, and in retrospect it seems like an obvious choice that has been overlooked by a generation of authors. Think of all the famous coming of age stories: Stand by Me, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Wonder Years… in all of these, the narrator is telling the story from some future date when they are mature, and thus the character grows while the narrator remains stagnant. This is masterful storytelling, and I urge anyone who gave up on this title in the first quarter of it to try it again with that sort of reading in mind.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
Two things bothered me about A Quest of Heroes, and they dovetail nicely to illustrate what the work as a whole is about to me. The first is the oppression on the part of Fathers toward their Sons in the novel: Thorgrin’s father is oppressive to him and tries to hide him from the soldiers recruiting in the area is an almost evil-stepmother from Cinderella type fashion. Once Thorgrin escapes his father, he’s quickly taken in by the King, who dotes on him while putting the same sort of mistrust on his own son.
The second thing that bothers me about this novel is the end. Without going into spoilers, Rice does a spectacular job of subverting the traditional three-act structure of a Heroes Journey. Around the 300 page mark you may find yourself seeing that all the plot lines seem to be cluing up and the novel is coming to its ‘natural conclusion’… yet there are still 46 pages left. The genre then flips in on itself, as the elements of the story that were left unguarded return and the novel becomes not about a hero’s rise but a hero’s potential fall.
Either of these elements alone could be the subject of Freudian analysis, but when taken together what they signify is that to me, this novel is about the tendency for a father’s over-protectiveness to be mistaken for oppression. It’s easy to paint the father as contradictory in Thorgrin’s view of him early in the novel, but remember that Thorgrin’s point-of-view at that point is unreliable. Is his father lording over him in an “evil stepmother” fashion… or is he taking the steps he feels are necessary to protect him from the fate he falls to by the novel’s end? Viewed through this lens, the story becomes one about point-of-view, and particularly the point-of-view of one generation viewing the one closest to it. These themes are universal, and are just some of the reason’s that Rice’s work, to me, transcended the confines of the fantasy genre.
A Quest of Heroes is both a love-letter to and a deconstruction of the fantasy genre, with all of its classic elements used or subverted in ingenious ways that will keep those familiar with the genre on their toes while keeping those to whom the genre is new surprised.
A Quest of Heroes by Morgan Rice is available in both soft and hardcover and audiobook format. But for those interested in seeing if my point-of-view on the work meshes with their own, the eBook version of the title appears to be set permanently FREE on Amazon in order to hook readers into the series. I encourage everyone to try it out and judge for yourself.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. A Quest of Heroes is © 2012 Morgan Rice. This review is © 2017 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.