Farmers and Mercenaries (2009) is the first book in a proposed six book series from Maxwell Drake. On top of this ambitious schedule, Mr. Drake has also begun releasing short stories and world information online. Not bad for a first-time author and compelling evidence of a superb work ethic.
Farmers introduces the reader to the sprawling world of Talic Nauth by way of four very different protagonists. The first, Clytus Rillion, is a noteworthy swordsman and the commander of a mercenary troop. He's a disciplined and honorable man, his reputation means a great deal to him. In Farmers, Rillion is off on an impossible quest - hired to find the blood of a mythical creature. The payment? He can use some of that same blood to cure his dying son.
Klain is a Kith, a rare race of lion-men. Klain is also the first of his kind to be raised in captivity. Still, this isn't a happy Lieutenant Worf story - Klain was captured after the massacre of his family and has grown to adulthood as a slave and a gladiator. Klain's priorities are survival and freedom. Only when those are achieved will he have a chance to think about what kind of man (or beast) he wants to be.
Alant Cor was raised in a rural community (sort of a Faerûn Kibbutz) but, upon reaching sixteen, discovered he had a rare talent for shaping the Essence (the ambiguous magical go-juice that fuels the epic plot). At the start of the book, he's training with the other Shapers in the great city of Mocley. However, before long his talent is noticed by the mysterious Elmorians. Alant receives the great (and dangerous) honor of visiting the homeland of this ancient race in order to further his studies.
Alant's little brother, Arderi, has high hopes of following in his footsteps. The friendly community of his farming town is beginning to stifle him, and Arderi longs to see more of the world. The omens are good - Arderi is convinced that he'll have the same rare talent as Alant. Unfortunately, the test says otherwise. Burning with shame, Arderi runs away from him and joins a travelling mercenary troop (see: "Rillion, Clytus" above).
In the timeless tradition of epic fantasies stemming all the way back to J.R.R. Tolkien, not a lot happens in this book. Our four characters (and one author) are all finding their feet. That's not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Mr. Drake occasionally succumbs to the urge to infodump, but the bulk of Farmers and Mercenaries is exactly what the title says: the microcosmic daily perambulations of largely unimportant people. Rivers are ferried. Crops are sowed. Books are studied. As the four characters progress, the book escalates to a suitably Epic and Cataclysmic Conclusion, but, even then, the overall form of the series is still quite woolly. For those readers that require something to happen, there's plenty of action on the pages - but when it comes to the greater plot, there's not much revealed. Bad times are a-comin', but that's about it.
To Mr. Drake's credit, there are no clear heroes and villains. The Elmorians are cryptic and creepy, but, like humans, they each seem have their own individual motivations, not an overarching racial one. (And huzzah for that - the "all [x] race are identical in motivation and purpose" approach is something fantasy should have staked through the heart ages ago.) However, this is still very much on the the "epic" end of the fantasy seesaw. Our four heroes are unequivocably good and noble people. Klain still has a few rough edges, but at no point was there ever any tension that any of the protagonists would do anything but the brave/right thing (the terms are often interchangeable).
That's the crux of Farmers and Mercenaries: it is a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the epic fantasy subgenre with all the perks and privileges (and shame and stigma) thereof. The book proudly presents farmboys turned heroes, magical races with too much punctuation, swords inherited on deathbeds and beautiful princesses. It also has a lack of female characters, a dearth of moral tension, a propensity to world build and a score of "chosen ones". (In fairness, even if it isn't overwhelmingly progressive, Farmers and Mercenaries does avoid being shamelessly reductive. Having women represented by princesses and not rape victims feels like a quaint throwback at this point in the genre.)
The test of mettle for any book in this subgenre is one of engagement. Is the reader absorbed enough in the good stuff that they fail to notice (or belatedly forgive) the bad stuff? Are the apostrophe elves so amazing that you don't giggle at their sheer goofiness? Is the stableboy man enough to overshadow the absence of women? Is the story so compelling that you don't mind that you already know the ending?
Mr. Drake's debut novel does fairly well on this scale, and he has the potential to do even better in future volumes. Farmers and Mercenaries is high fantasy in the tradition of David Eddings - unchallenging, entertaining and comfortable. The main problem isn't one of plot but of language. Farmers and Mercenaries lacks editorial polish. There's a tendency to repeat information nervously and to "tell not show" (and sometimes to "tell not show" then "show" then "tell" again). But, especially for a debut novel, Farmers and Mercenaries is a well-structured adventure that does a solid job of establishing the ground rules for the rest of the series. The bare bones of a patented Great Adventure have been set in place and I hope that Mr. Drake presses on to tell his story with less hesitancy and more flair.
Farmers and Mercenaries (as well as its sequel, Mortals and Deities) are both available to purchase through the saga's website. Background information and the first chapters are also available as a free download.