Brave Men Die is the first in a 3-part series by Australian author Dan Adams. Focussing on two brothers, creatively named Castor and Pollux, Brave Men Die is an entirely rompy combat fest that fell short for me in a number of ways. Published only three months after his debut novel, I found Brave Men Die to have all the hallmarks of inexperienced action writers, with a few other quirks I hope he decides to grow out of. Definitely a ‘for people who like this sort of thing’ kind of novel. Not -bad- per se, but nothing exceptional to counteract the flaws.
Castor and Pollux Fallon are members of the Buckthorne military, and have been since their mother handed the unruly little bastards into the care of the Baron after their father’s death.
When the Kyzantine Empire attacks the Murukan outposts in the Callisto Mountains the brothers answer the call to war. Behind the front-line battle scenes are brutal assassinations, political backstabbing and the re-emergence of a dark power long thought eradicated from the land. The conflict escalates, all the while forcing each brother to make another difficult decision between sacrifice and duty until the day that the toll is unbearable … and there is only one type of sacrifice left.
So in case you didn’t get my possibly oblique reference in the introduction, naming your brother protagonists Castor and Pollux is the Ancient Greece/Rome inspired version of naming your lovers Romeo and Juliet, or your team of undercover cops Starsky and Hutch. Castor and Pollux are among the more famous of the brothers of history. They became the constellation Gemini for goodness sakes! I’m all for historical nods, but it sort of put me on edge right off the bat. Of course if this were the only thing which bugged me about this novel, that would be pretty solid. But there is more. Oh there is more.
Adams has a tendency to just toss named people at you for no apparent reason. Men approach the gate, the guards do some things, then Jim says something. And you go ‘wait…which one is Jim? Is he a guard, a guy coming to the gate? Oh…Jim’s dead now, guess it doesn’t matter which one he was.’ Or that same exchange except you never see or hear from them again. It caused me to just need to wait for the second or third appearance of any name before I bothered paying much attention to what they were doing, since so many other people seem to be named as an alternative to describing them for the half a paragraph they are appearing in the story. It made things harder to follow and kept pulling me out of the story.
Also, there’s magic in this world. Almost entirely unexplained magic. There are some magic users. I guess they sort of have a general power level that controls how much magic they can cast. No idea if this recharges over time, or while they sleep, or only when they dance naked under the full moon. The spells have names like they are from Dungeons and Dragons. They cast ‘Fireball’ and ‘Soul Entrapment’ and it’s called that, with caps, as a proper noun. There are spells you can apparently only learn from books, but the same character who needs a book to learn one spell, learns another by sitting in an enchanted chair and just thinking a bit about the enchantment and now they know it. Also they made up a spell on their own. They have a whole system of ranks and levels and different types of academy which seemed super interesting, and were basically mentioned in passing once or twice and then never again. After reading magic systems like those you find in The Wheel of Time or anything Brandon Sanderson has ever written, this just seemed slapdash and incomprehensible. It made the Malazan Warrens system seem entirely clear and transparent.
And Adams also falls afoul of the, to me, cardinal sin of writing medieval combat. In his zeal to make the scenes super ass-kickingly awesome, he’s decided that every protagonist’s weapon weighs about an ounce, and has the impact power of a lightsaber. The number of people beheaded, losing limbs, and even literally chopped in half means that we’ve either got the scale of these people all wrong, and Castor and Pollux are ten feet tall, or we’ve completely subsumed reality in the name of looking cool. Even on a horse, you don’t swing a sword one-handed and slice somebody in armour in half. You especially don’t then continue your swing and hit somebody else. You also don’t do it for more than about five minutes without being completely exhausted. This is hard to criticize too much though, since so little medieval combat actually wants to be realistic, because realistic fighting in plate mail with broadswords is actually pretty boring to spectate unless one or preferably both of the people are really REALLY good, or the spectator really knows what they’re looking at.
Overall, I’d say my primary impression of Brave Men Die is that it was written by somebody who really wanted to tell a story, and maybe has put enough thought into exactly how they wanted to tell it, that they’re telling it that way whether it makes the best novel or not to somebody who didn’t share in all that thinking. Maybe those characters being named and moved on from had a vibrant backstory and life in Adams’ mind that we didn’t get to see. Maybe he knows exactly how the magic system works and later books are going to be all about them. Maybe he just wants his warriors to kick ass and take names, and doesn’t care whether they’re accurate. None of those things condemn him.
Usually when I write a review, there are a few things I really liked, and a couple I really didn’t and I can pick one or two of each and thus end up with a balanced looking review. I don’t want anybody to think this book stunk. It didn’t stink. But where I might rank a few things in the book at 8-9 and one thing at 10, and then a few at 3-4 and maybe one thing at 1 that really bugged me, Brave Men Die was an exercise in 4-6. A bunch of things niggled at me a little bit, a bunch of things were alright. But nothing on either side of the scale really leaped out at me. This was a competent book. As I said in my introduction, for people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing those people will like. If you enjoy amazing heroes smashing their way through everything in a spray of blood and guts, get in there. I can also heartily recommend Gav Thorpe’s The Crown of the Blood series for more of the same. Sort of an NC17 R.A. Salvatore. But it really didn’t do anything for me.
Dan Received an Advance Review Copy of this book from HarperCollins via NetGalley