#REVIEW: THE WARDEN, by Daniel M. Ford

First, the standard disclaimer whenever I review one of Dan Ford’s books: while we’ve never met in person, Dan and I are interweb mutuals and have been for years at this point, and I’m a member of his private Discord server, and if you would like to take that information as a reason to perhaps toss a pinch of salt on my opinion on his latest book, I would not look askance upon you. That said, the rule I’ve always followed when reviewing books written by people I know is that if I can’t write an honestly positive review I’m just not going to write a review at all. I owe my readers honesty in my reviews but that doesn’t mean I can’t keep my mouth shut, right?

At any rate, I think this is probably his best book, and I’ve read and reviewed all of them, as far as I know. So let’s just start with that: this is his best book, and it’s part one of a trilogy, and I need Book Two, damn it. This is not going to be a spoiler review but let me just say that I think that the next book will begin quickly after the end of this one and I need to know what happens next.

The premise: Aelis de Lenti is a necromancer and a (supremely talented) recent graduate of the prestigious Magister’s Lyceum. The Lyceum trains Wardens, which are basically a mix of a town sheriff, a local ombudsman, and if necessary the magical equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Aelis, a city girl and the scion an extremely wealthy family, finds herself posted to Lone Pine, a tiny farming village at the edge of nowhere with absolutely nothing of the comforts she is used to. The townspeople don’t trust her very much at first, she’s not especially fond of them either, the second floor of her wizard’s tower on the edge of town basically doesn’t exist, and her home keeps being invaded by a goat.

Shenanigans ensue. Like I said, this isn’t a spoiler review, so I don’t intend to describe the shenanigans, but one way or another by the end of the book you’re going to have a decent idea of why the Lyceum “wasted” her by posting her to Lone Pine, and you’ll have met enough characters from Lone Pine itself that you’ll be invested in what ends up happening with them.

One of the things I really liked about Ford’s Paladin trilogy was his choice of main character. Religion generally doesn’t have much of a role in high fantasy, or at least doesn’t have much of a role among the main characters, so seeing a paladin as the central character of the trilogy was great. This book is about a wizard, and while my first thought was “Well, there are tons of books about wizards,” … are there, really? Because I don’t know that I’ve seen a character like Aelis as the MC of a series. Can I come up with some characters who fit her role? Sure, but they’re all side characters. I’m gonna come up with a counterexample as soon as I hit Publish, but Dan’s got a great knack for choosing protagonists that feel new and different.

Which is interesting, because the overall feel of the book is very old-school and very D&D influenced, and it’s been interesting to look at other reviews of the book and see how people feel about that. What do I mean? Well, all of Aelis’ spells have names, and they have “Orders,” which are functionally equivalent to spell levels as far as I can tell. Most wizards, or at least most Wardens specialize in a single school of magic, and the most powerful might have a handful. If you’re a D&D player, you can list them off right now, and let’s see how many I can do from memory: Necromancy, Divination, Abjuration, Conjuration, Evocation, Illusion, Alteration, and … dammit … Enchantment! The eighth is enchantment. Aelis specializes in Necromancy, Abjuration, and Enchantment, more or less in that order, although most of what she does throughout the book is cast wards. You don’t really see her lean into the necromancy until the end of the book, and the townspeople of Lone Pine have serious aversions to it.

Now, this is not so much up my alley as it is the actual alley itself, so it worked for me across the board. Aelis does have her spells memorized, and definitely runs low on magic the more casting she does, but I don’t think she’s actually forgetting spells or getting up and consulting her spell books like a D&D wizard might be. I can see why a reader might roll their eyes a touch, perhaps, at Aelis literally deciding to cast Moogerdook’s Hornswoggling Goat-Inconveniencer at someone. I am not one of those people.

A word about Aelis herself, so long as we’re discussing mileages and how they might vary. Aelis is … well, she’s a lot, to be honest. Someone asked Dan in the Discord if he thought she was arrogant the other day, and his response was something along the lines of that she is likely to think that of all the people in a room she is the most capable of solving a problem and probably also the smartest and most talented. She is also likely to be right. She reminds me– and I doubt this is intentional– of Aloy from the Horizon games, because Aloy is a supreme asshole when she’s surrounded by people who aren’t as competent as she is, and there are plainly and simply not that many people who are as competent as she is. Aloy has no patience for anyone’s bullshit, and neither does Aelis. She’s bossy and curt but she’s also literally in charge most of the time due to her role as a Warden, and one way or another there are going to be people who are turned off by her.

I was not one of those people. I’m kind of sneering at them right now, too. A lot of the book is inside Aelis’ head, and the trick is she has doubts and recriminations and anxieties and such but she is not about to let anyone see them. It’s going to be interesting to see if she cracks under the pressure in future books, because she rather abruptly becomes responsible for a lot toward the end of the book.

She’s also delightfully gay, by the way, and the romance subplot is a highlight. I won’t spoil anything about it but I’m looking forward to seeing more of her love interest.

I haven’t talked about the worldbuilding, which is typically great, especially since the book is literally set in a tiny village where nothing ever happens. Ford does a great job of giving you an idea of what the outside world is like, via letters from family (that Aelis reads to the recipients, who are frequently unable to read) and the occasional adventuring group from outside of town showing up. I want to see more, of course, because I always want more worldbuilding, but this was a highlight as well.

Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t surprise me that I enjoyed this book as much as I did; I was all in based on the description, and knowing the author obviously doesn’t hurt. But you want to check this one out. It’s Dan’s sixth book, but it’s also his first with Tor, and I’m kinda personally invested (emotionally, not financially) in it doing well. Give it a look. You’ll like it.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

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