Publisher: Dark Blade Publishing (2018)
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A dark, medieval fantasy with a hopeful message from debut author, S. J. Hartland will draw attention for its atmospheric settings, evil twists, and righteous triumphs.

Lord Vraymorg is a seemingly ageless warrior whose duty is to train young bladesmen for their heavy task. These specially selected assassins, called bonded warriors, have the onerous responsibility of killing ghouls – and only ghouls – and always running the risk of being attacked. Being attacked by ghouls means certain death. And dying by ghoul is something everyone naturally wants to avoid. But something is different with Kaell, Vraymorg’s latest charge. In fact, the 19th bladesman carries a special destiny, one directed by the gods. Kaell is bright, defiant, and, though Vraymorg cannot bear to think of it, lovable, like a son. This fatherly love is the crux of the warrior lord’s struggle. How can he put this young man into harm’s way? For it is a death sentence to be trained as a warrior and pick up arms against the ghouls. Vraymorg doesn’t have it easy, and we get it.

Told from multiple points of view, Hartland’s story offers strong, masculine heroes like Kaell and Vraymorg, and intriguing feminine heroes like Rozenn, whose passion is matched by her infinite knowledge of Vraymorg’s past, and Azenor, a seer bound to Kaell in death. Even Archanin, the eerie, bloodthirsty leader of the ghouls, has his say, as he urges his band to spare Kaell’s life so that he can become one of them, a fate, perhaps, worse than death. When word comes that Kaell has died, leaving only his sword, Rozenn tells Vraymorg that the sword is a mysterious instrument with magical powers, powers that may save the lost boy, if wielded by someone who cares more for him than anyone else.

This is Hartland’s debut novel. It is a prodigious undertaking, notable for its length (more than 600 pages), and is worth the time spent, as it becomes an experience, a journey into an ancient, fabled world that beckons with echoes of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Journalist Hartland has fleshed out each of the many characters and given them their place in this complex saga – and, one imagines, in the broadening tale to come, since we are told she has a sequel in the works. She has a gift for prose, proven on nearly every page.

At its heart, The 19th Bladesman examines the love of a father for an adoptive student/son he refuses to allow himself to care about, suspecting that the young man’s fate will be tragic and that his demise will come at his teacher’s hand. The mystery of Vraymorg’s relationship with Kaell and of Kaell’s indomitable will to please his mentor are the twin forces that buoy Hartland’s grandly conceived work and keep the constantly burgeoning plot afloat.