The Story. Young Thomas is an orphaned boy growing up in an out-of-the-way abbey where he is treated more like a slave than a charge of the church. His nurse, who he discovered was actually his mother, cared for him until he was eleven, teaching him to read and pointing him toward his destiny–one day he would conquer the unassailable fortress of Magnus and reclaim the throne taken from his father.
Goaded once too often by one of the monks, Thomas makes a violent break from the abbey and begins his quest. As part of his plan, he frees a Knight Templar from the executioner’s noose. In the process he also frees two other prisoners–a pickpocket and a beautiful young woman who appears to be deaf and mute.
As Thomas struggles to gain control of Magnus, he discovers there are those who promise to help him, even empower him, if he will but join their ranks and turn over to them the legacy left to him by his mother–books of knowledge that give him a decided edge over his enemies. But are these Druids enemies or friends? And who are the Immortals? On what side is his new friend, the apparently disfigured young woman serving in the candle shop who he defends?
Strengths. Sigmund Brouwer is a wonderful writer. He has created intriguing, believable characters. Thomas is wise beyond his years, an observer of human nature, kind-hearted. The secondary characters are equally interesting and well-drawn.
The plot has lots of intrigue and avoids the fantasy curse of predictability. There are surprises and twists and (unfortunately) cliffhangers. And romance for those of us who think a good romance belongs in every story.
The setting is well drawn, with sufficient sensory detail to transport the reader to England during the Middle Ages. There is also a distinct thread running through the story exploring faith in God at the same time that it exposes the corruption of the church during this period.
Weaknesses. The Orphan King started slowly. It had moments of suspense, but drifted into confusion too often, I thought. Rather than opening with the main character and grounding the reader in what he wanted, one of the factions vying for his allegiance made the first appearance.
Much of the story involved William, the Knight Templar who didn’t trust Thomas, though they appeared to build a bond. His unwillingness to give Thomas any information that would help him understand what he’s up against was galling.
The story picked up in the latter half and continued at a crisp pace throughout Fortress of Mist. Anyone interested in this series should not judge it by the beginning of Book 1
I mentioned yesterday that this is a fantasy series that, so far, is missing one of the main fantasy tropes–magic. Rather, scientific activity that may have appeared as magic in that day, replaces traditional fantasy magic. So the prediction of such a thing as an eclipse appeared to those without knowledge about the way the sun and moon work, as though the person making the prediction had the power to darken the sun. Mr. Brouwer’s use of science in a superstitious age instead of magic was innovative and clever. Some readers may find it a refreshing departure from supernatural power. Others may be disappointed that the speculative elements are so thin.
Recommendation. If you lean toward historical fiction, you’ll especially enjoy The Orphan King and Fortress of Mist. I quickly connected with Thomas and wanted to see him succeed at every turn. I was most frustrated when people I believe to be good refused to help him because of their own doubts. Thomas rightfully had doubts, I thought, but those who were in a position to help him … not so much. Still, that bit of frustration is in no way a deal breaker. I’m happy I found these books and recommend them to fantasy fans and highly recommend them to fans of historical fiction.