Medieval Fantasy with Real Swords
On the first page of Behind the Throne we step into a duel. Muscles ache, feet drag, sweat stings and swords hurt. This is not a choreographed passage of flashing blades.
That level of realism holds throughout the personal battles and national wars of Behind the Throne.
This is not the usual fantasy-adventure romp with lots of naked sweaty muscles, comic-book violence, and a celebratory clench-a-wench ale-swigging at the end. There is no magic, no mysticism, and less philosophizing than you find in an exchange between two hard-boiled detectives. It is battle and war and pain and death from beginning to end, with small bits of personal peace and reward. Good people die, and bad people live too long. Moral questions do not have easy solutions, and even the hard solutions aren't perfect.
I liked it very much.
Dougherty has a clear, transparent writing style that focuses attention on the story rather than the author. His characters are described by their actions, so they develop a little more slowly than "The noble Pancha Dru with his eagle's countenance and heroic heart" but feel more like people than like dreams. The villains end up more interesting than the heroes, but isn't that always the way? At least I don't feel like chucking Alvin Riall under the chin and feeding him cookies, which is the impulse most of the modern ilk of fantasy heroes and heroines arouse in me.
Behind the Throne is classified fantasy-adventure because it takes place in a medieval world that never was. This lets an author have person-to-person battle instead of the faceless conflicts of modern war, arrange events at will without having to align with history, imagine new cultures and nations. The appeal is clear.
Some readers confuse the medievalist fantasy world with the real medieval world. This is easy to do when an author like Martin Dougherty includes details (worked in naturally, without a hitch in the narrative) such as the impact of harvest cycles on war and war on harvest cycles, and the structure of a medieval walled city. But I doubt that any medieval lord felt great anguish over the fate of barbarians pushed off their tribal lands in the advance of his country's boundaries, as Alvin Riall does. That is a modern sensibility developed by longer and closer acquaintance with such peoples, and an accumulation of wealth and security that allows indulgence of humanitarian impulses. But this is a fantasy novel and not an historical novel. I think that Dougherty can not only be forgiven for including such modern sentiments but that he is right to do so.
The independence and even fighting ability of Dougherty's female characters are not anachronisms. Medieval chatelaines held their husband's castles in their absence, under war and siege, in all reality.
One element of modern Politically Correct Fantasy was interestingly absent. There are no sympathetic gay characters. The villain of the piece masquerades as a pedophile and the most despicable character in the book can best be described as sexually omnivorous. There is, however. one hint in one encounter that in at least one culture in the world a same-sex liaison between consenting adults would be acceptable.
Martin Dougherty is a science teacher and a fencing coach. He has written popular fantasy-adventure gaming materials for several years. The gamers I have known demand logic and realism in their fantasy wars. Dougherty has successfully transferred those elements to novel-length fiction. I hope he writes more.