Fifty years ago, the Holy Empire of Mann was born when a nihilistic urban cult conquered the city of Q'os. In the decades since then, it has overrun the shores of two continents, conquering all the lands of the Mideres Sea aside from the islands known as the Mercian Free Ports and the powerful Alhazii Caliphate to the east, the source of the Empire's gunpowder.
For ten years the Empire has besieged the Mercian city of Bar-Khos. Despite the Empire's military power, the walls of Bar-Khos have continued to defy them, but the city is overflowing with refugees and keeping the supply lines to the east open is becoming increasingly difficult. One refugee, Nico, is driven to thievery by starvation and poverty, but finds that his latest choice of target was rather ill-chosen...
Meanwhile, the son and heir of the Holy Matriarch of Mann has killed a woman protected by the Roshun, the vendetta assassins pledged to avenge the death of their clients. Despite the prince-priest's power and guards, the Roshun are pledged to vengeance, even if carrying out this task will plunge them into war with the greatest and most ruthless nation in the world.
Farlander is the first volume of The Heart of the World, a rollicking old-school epic fantasy with a few modern twists. Even the map recalls the 1980s output of Raymond E. Feist (i.e. when he was still good), whilst the political set-up, the religious fundamentalist 'evil empire' (though it is drawn in somewhat more depth than that) and the 'callow young apprentice assassin hero' are all somewhat familiar. However, as with Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself the author here succeeds in making you believe you're reading something very familiar indeed when the story suddenly spins on a dime and throws you off on a different course altogether. There's relatively little magic, its role in the story being replaced by various forms of technology (including possibly organic bio-tech in the form of the Roshun seals) such as cannons, gunpowder rifles and airships which are rationed from the mysterious Islands of Sky, which give rise to smoke-and-cordite battle sequences reminiscent of Buchanan's fellow Northern Irish fantasy author Paul Kearney.
Characterisation is strong, with Nico an engaging (if somewhat familiar) protagonist and Ash an effective older mentor character past his best but still capable of dispatching hordes of city guard extras when required (if there's a film, expect him to be played by Liam Neeson). Other characters are more interesting, such as Kira (the mother of the Mannian Patriarch), but are kept intriguingly off-screen, hopefully to play larger roles later on. Buchanan writes with an effectively ruthless but concise style (one benefit of rising paper prices is that what would once have been flabby 600-page fantasies are now kept to a lean 350 pages or so, which is welcome) which is still gripping.
Complaints are few. There are a few characters clearly present only because they play a role in future books, but have little to do here (although this early set-up may be preferable to them just showing up out of nowhere later on). The incongruous mix of gunpowder technology, mysticism (there's no magic, but a few prophetic dreams crop up) and swords-and-shields also probably needs a little more explanation than what we get in this first book, but these are mostly minor issues.
Farlander (****) is a solid, engaging opening novel in a new fantasy series which initially appears to be playing it safe before throwing the readers some pretty big curveballs in the closing acts which are refreshingly realistic and leave the story on an enticing cliffhanger. The book is available now in the UK and on import in the USA.