The Doom of Fallowhearth – Robbie MacNiven – Review

The Doom of Fallowhearth

Robbie MacNiven

Aconyte Books

I think one of the things that most appeals to me about the titles published by Aconyte Books, the newly-established publishing arm of Asmodee Games, is the wide variety of fantasy and science-fiction settings that they’re set in, based on the various boardgame, role-playing game and collectible card game licenses that they have available to them and their authors. In their initial tranche of titles, recently published in both ebook and paperback, I read stories that not only took place in settings I was familiar with like the wonderfully eerie Jazz-era Arkham Horror (John Reynold’s Wrath of N’Kai) but also ones that were entirely new to me, from the fog-shrouded and spirit-haunted lands of the Legend of the Five Rings (David Annandale’s Curse of Honor) to the joyously colourful and mad-cap blend of science-fiction and fantasy that is the KeyForge universe (the Tales from the Crucible anthology). They’ve all been a joy to read, epitomised by fantastic cover illustration, top-notch editing, and some of the best science-fiction, fantasy and occult detective stories that I’ve come across in the genre in a while penned by the cream of those genres. Under the keen eye of veteran editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells and her dedicated team, the new publisher has positively flourished even under the ridiculously difficult circumstances the publishing world finds itself at the moment, and Aconyte Books has rapidly become my favourite publisher to review new titles from. This time around it’s The Doom of Fallowhearth, the first novel released by the publisher from author Robbie MacNiven and set in the fantasy universe of the Descent roleplaying boardgame. It sounded like another exciting universe full of intriguing stories and plot-points to exploit, and once again the publisher had chosen a fantastic author – MacNiven has written some brilliant Warhammer 40,000 tales for Black Library which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, so I was eager to see what he would come up with in this new setting.

As the back-cover blurb so helpfully describes, the focus of the novel is on legendary orc hero Durik and his old friends, dwarf alchemist Ulma Grimstone and rogue Logan Lashley, as they venture into the treacherous depths of Fallowhearth in search of the Baroness of Forthyn’s missing daughter. But what begins as a simple search soon devolves into something far more complex and terrifying, as the trio encounter the ensourceled dead, a former friend turned to darkness, and a horde of giant monsters. After a brief prologue in which it becomes clear that a character’s hasty, ill-considered decision involving black magic has unplanned and terrifying consequences, setting off the chain of events that lead to the trio venturing towards Fallowhearth, we then deftly pivot to the three protagonists of the novel. Logan Lashley, former rogue and now minor aristocrat, comes out of retirement and travels to the city of Highmont, capital of the distant region of Forthyn, to meet with his former colleague, orc adventurer Durik. Barely arriving in time to save him from a hostile crowd of humans, Logan discovers that the orc himself was in turn summoned by the Baroness of Forthyn to locate her missing daughter, intending to make use his legendary tracking abilities and fearsome reputation, despite the hostility he faces from humans in general. Tasked with finding the Baroness’ missing daughter, Logan and Durik head towards Fallowhearth, accompanied by the gruff, distrustful, and bigoted Captain Kloin, and the disdainful, aristocratic Lady Damhan.

As their search progresses, the duo become a trio when they’re joined by Ulma Grimstone and her colourful, impressive and highly unpredictable magical experiments, and begin to enter terrain inhabited by fearful peasants and hostile raiding clansmen before coming to Fallowhearth itself. There, in a town on the edge of the wilderness and full of suspicious, distrustful and fearful people, the trio conduct their investigation and begin to uncover evidence that the case is far more complex – and deadly – than a simple matter of Lady Kathryn being kidnapped by the wild northern clans. Soon they’ll encounter hidden secrets and treachery, terrifying monsters and dark magic, and the presence of an old and once-trusted comrade who has a very different agenda to their own. MacNiven weaves a complex and often surprising narrative as the novel progresses, in the process creating something far more engaging and thought-provoking than I had ever considered possible, even with his talents as an author and the well-deserved reputation for quality fiction that Aconyte Books is rapidly developing. The novel often took me genuinely by surprise, and in my opinion represents a new high mark for tie-in fiction and the opportunities it can provide.

There are several key elements to The Doom of Fallowhearth that make it such a striking and memorable title. One of its greatest strengths is the strong cast of characters that MacNiven develops throughout the novel, and particularly the way in which he develops the trio of Logan, Durik and Ulma. While they begin the novel appearing to be stereotypical characters – the charismatic and arrogant rogue, headstrong orc, and gruff dwarf, it soon becomes clear that their personal history and shared adventures in their past have caused some complex interpersonal relations to develop; and as the story progresses, each of the trio gets a chance to have their own character arc develop and conclude in a highly satisfying manner. Old memories and actions, and the loss of an old comrade helps them work together, but also causes a certain level of bitterness and resentment. There’s also the ever-present and unavoidable shadow of old age lingering over the three, each one in their own way experiencing the ravages of age and the issues caused by that; it’s the one foe that cannot be overcome, and MacNiven creates a touching and emotionally-laden undercurrent of quiet regret that runs throughout the novel and makes it much more engaging as a result. Even the secondary characters are fleshed out and well-judged; to take just one example, Captain Kloin is such an utter bastard, perfectly judged to act as a willing obstacle to the trio of adventurers, to the extent that there were several times when I found myself riled up alongside the characters in the novel. And there’s one character – who I can’t name or even describe without comprehensively spoiling the plot – who is particularly well developed and crafted by MacNiven, her history with the trio and her background in the darkest of arts creating a complex and highly sympathetic person that I would really like to see more stories from in the future. In addition there are some well-described and darkly horrifying monsters that populate the novel and lead to some tense, atmospheric action set-pieces; I don’t quite know how it’s possible, given their cliched nature in numerous genres, but MacNiven even manages to make the shambling undead uniquely terrifying as they roam around Fallowhearth and nearby settlements.

In addition to the excellent plot and MacNiven’s deft eye for characterisation, the great sense of atmosphere and the way he brings the game setting to life is another integral part that makes The Doom of Fallowhearth such a success. MacNiven uses his writing skills to create a number of distinct and unique areas, from cities and towns to wild, desolate wastes and claustrophobic forests. That even extends to the character, personality and physical descriptions of different races, and inhabitants of various human settlements; it’s evidence of an eye for detail very few writers have, and in turn it helps draw you into the story. As a result, you really feel like you’re walking through alongside the characters as the plot progresses, and the harsh, unforgiving and bitter terrain of Upper Forthyn and around Fallowhearth makes for a memorable backdrop to the plot as it artfully and skilfully unravels. Fallowhearth in particular, as the centre of the tale, is so vividly described and populated by MacNiven that it practically becomes a character itself, invested with a grim and dark personality, characterised by rural decay, the very edges of authority, and a poor and desperate population who have no wish to be drawn into the machinations of the missing Lady Kathryn or the nobility. And more generally, there’s also a sense of history that MacNiven intertwines with the narrative, referencing battles and events far in the past, making the setting far more intriguing as a result; it certainly made me want to read more novels set in the Descent universe.

Expertly-written and populated with some of the most memorable characters in a fantasy novel that I’ve read in quite some time, and imbued with a bold, thought-provoking and often surprising narrative, with an emotionally powerful ending that’s akin to a fist in the gut, The Doom of Fallowhearth is another first-rate title by author Robbie MacNiven, as well as further proof of the success of Aconyte Books under the keen eye and guidance of editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells. The novel is not only a fantastic example of the heights to which the dark fantasy genre can be raised, but also another demonstration from Aconyte Books that tie-in fiction for an I.P. setting can be fresh, engaging, and original while also staying within the strictures and requirements of the setting. I look forward to more titles set in the Descent universe, which MacNiven has done a sterling job of bringing vividly to life, as well as more collaborations between the author and Aconyte Books.

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