Farlander is the debut fantasy novel from Col Buchanan. Like many other recent fantasy releases, Farlander combines elements of steampunk, grim "low fantasy" features, and some sort of bad-ass on the cover art. However, like a Tootsie Roll pop, these are just a thin, dark coat on top of a squishy, high fantasy center.
Farlander is primarily the story of Nico, a roguish kid who is saved from the mean streets by a mysterious Wise Old Man. There are, of course, Visions involved - although, thankfully, no Prophecies.
There are bonus points from making Nico the ripe age of 17 (practically geriatric by high fantasy standards), but also penalties for giving the Wise Old Man the name of "Ash". (Which, like "Raven", should be banned from all fantasy books forever.)
Nico is whisked away for training at a far-off monastery, where Ash and his ilk teach him how to become a Roshun: an order of just assassins. Assassins that believe in honor and virtue, not, say, killing people for cold hard cash (they do that too).
Unfortunately for Nico, this is an awkward time to sign up for the mystical order of kick-ass monks. There's a sinister religiously-oriented empire (sigh) that's steadily taking over the world, and the Roshun have are on the wrong (losing) side of the battle.
As Nico goes through his predictable journey of a) being bad at training, b) getting good at training), c) self-doubt, d) having an inappropriate crush, e) befriending an enemy and f) coming of age, Farlander occasionally cuts to other, more interesting stories. There's the point of view from Kirkus, the high priest of the Evil Empire, but he's essentially your standard airport-thriller serial killer. Perhaps most interesting is that of a middle-aged military aide in the besieged city of Bar-Khos. He's cheating on his wife, stealing money, petrified of combat and somehow one of the "good guys". Buchanan channels a bit of KJ Parker here, and actually brings the grim reality of warfare to the page.
Also to Buchanan's credit, Farlander ends on a series of genuine surprises. Proper surprises that defied the otherwise pedestrian plotting of the book (not, say, the damp squibs that concluded The Left Hand of God). As long as the author maintains the audacity to build on his exciting ending, the series shows great promise. I'm cautiously optimistic about the sequel to Farlander, and will keep my hopes up.
In general, that'd be my advice to all exciting fantasy debut novels: Ditch the airships, the mysterious orders of just assassins and anyone named like a pre-teen'd D&D character. In Farlander, once those conventional, predictable, commercial elements are removed, there's actually a glimmer or two of hope. Buchanan shows a real ability to get into the head of flawed characters and to buck convention in a fascinating way. But this shouldn't be saved for minor roles and dramatic climaxes - this talent should manifest itself throughout the book.