Lawrence Watt-Evans begins his latest sword and sorcery series with THE WIZARD LORD, Volume One of The Annals of the Chosen. In the land of Barokan, magic is everpresent. The ler are the spirits within every living and nonliving thing; they’re in the air itself. To cooperate peacefully, people have had to learn to satisfy their local ler’s requirements which vary widely and are administered by the priestly class. Wizards, on the other hand, can conjure wild ler, and a fascinating arrangement has developed between them and human society over the centuries.
The Council of the Immortals designates a single Wizard Lord who multiplies his power by borrowing from the rest. His mandate is to provide good weather for the land and to discipline other rogue wizards gone bad, a corruption that has occurred with distressing frequency. Providing another safeguard, the Chosen are a scattered band of eight human heroes: Leader, Archer, Swordsman, Seer, Speaker, Beauty, Scholar, and Thief who must gather to unseat or kill the Wizard Lord himself should he turn dark, another occurrence with several catastrophic precedents. The council of wizards have magically empowered the roles of the Chosen with unique talents that each have unavoidable demands and consequences, and the death of any of the Chosen will diminish the Wizard Lord’s own assembled powers. As the story advances, this unusual system of balanced interconnection will creates lots of fascinating tension, confusion, and opportunities for betrayal.
In the simple village of Mad Oak, thanks to the current Wizard Lord, it only rains gently at night after the day’s farming is done. But during one barley harvest, two strangers arrive, claiming to be looking for a replacement for the aging Chosen Swordsman. Breaker, as he’s called, is twenty and restless. He loves his family and friends and the familiar cycles of season and harvest, but he’s finding himself unwilling to settle for their boundaries, and so volunteers. Though Breaker isn’t blood-thirsty, and has second and third thoughts, he will earn his title, but not without unforeseen preparations and pretense, a sign of things to come.
The story is told cleanly and clearly, and what’s nicest is that nothing will be exactly as Breaker’s led to believe by the legends or his predecessor. He must constantly reinterpret what he thinks he knows, not purely because of his youth and limited upbringing, but because of the obfuscation and manipulation he encounters. The Chosen live largely pedestrian lives, and have not all even met each other. The unplanned differences in replacement times for the roles means there can be as much a generation gap separating them as skills and physical geography. After Breaker receives ominous hints about the current Wizard Lord, he begins his travels and locates two other Chosen who agree about shouldering their official capacities. However, that proves no guarantee that the rest will concur about the looming threat or be amenable to leaving the comforts of home. Many fantasy characters make token resistance to their missions, but Watt-Evans has created some truly unwilling, occasionally unlikable heroes, genuinely unhappy with and jaw-droppingly resistant to fulfilling their world-saving destinies.
One of the nicest things for a reader is a favorite theme freshened. Watt-Evans has put everything up for grabs except the presence of the sword and sorcery. Despite Breaker’s occasional glories, this young hero feels burdened and bamboozled, and doesn’t completely trust his team of somewhat disenchanted and distant saviors. The Chosen don’t immediately meld into a well-oiled killing machine, in fact, there isn’t even consensus about the villain’s need to be killed. While this tale is not non-stop action, its reimagining makes the personal and political conflicts, revelations, and yes, the violence that occurs more surprising and gripping. I’m looking forward to discovering what’s next for this unexpected land.