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Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review: Will Power by A. J. Hartley

Will Power-Tor/Forge Publishing (Click the title of this review for more info)

Will Power, second in a series of fast-paced fantasy novels by A J
Hartley, makes its debut on the bookstore shelves today. I write "series" in the
hopeful assumption that Hartley has plans for continuing the saga of one Will
Hawthorne--actor, poet, playwright, con man, and now full-time reluctant adventurer. Hawthorne's somewhat checkered rise to stardom as a young Elizabethan-style actor of plays and self-proclaimed pithy purveyor of pentameter poesy, was rudely interrupted in the first installment, Act of Will, leading to new employment as front man for a band of, in Will's modest opinion, much too heroic adventurers.

Stylistically, Professor Hartley has created a somewhat eclectically archaic world
for us to adventure through in accompaniment to his heroes. An entertaining mix of places and individuals with the flavor of the Elizabethan, the Gothic, and the sometimes hard to categorize populates the narrative, written in the first person from Will Hawthorne's perspective. But our inability to 'peg' this time and these places, while at the same time being more than faintly all too familiar with them is the result of a clever device on Hartley's part. And it's the use of that very device that makes it an unusually fresh approach in my opinion. Hartley is able to remain true to his atmosphere with rich and vivid descriptions of the surroundings, situations, battles, creatures, and ancient weaponry, yet allows the reader to settle into an easy, comfortable, narrative realm, through the modern linguistic expressiveness and colloquialisms of his lead character, Will--and far from clashing, the style winds up complementing itself over and over.

Following the events through the eyes of Will Hawthorne, Will Power transports us to ancient lands of Goblins who use bears as horses, wolves that seem to understand what you're thinking, and a gleaming White City where King and court seem all too concerned with outward appearances. Therein lies a theme commented on by Hartley. But the commentary isn't heavy handed. It's intertwined so well within the story line that the denouement, held close enough to the vest to more than support the lessons we might learn, still comes as a shock to the senses, surrounded by the events Hartley so deftly and vividly describes for us. In reality, though we might sometimes wish to ignore their existence, we Know these strange characters for who and what they are--and the realization can come to us as a little unsettling, even though we must nod in assignation as we read. This is one of the qualities I have come to admire about Hartley as a writer; he instructs as well as entertains.

Hartley has also seen fit to aptly furnish his saga with a back story. In the author's words:

Like the first volume, Act of Will, it [Will Power] has been translated from
the original Thrusian--as preserved in the now famous Fossington House
Papers--with the aid of notes left by the Elizabethan translator Sir Thomas
Henby. As readers of the first manuscript will quickly see, the second volume is
different in key respects from the first, and raises still more vexing questions
of provenance, locale, and issues of how much of the narrative--if any--is
derived from fact.

He then goes on to promise the results of further investigation in a series of
academic papers to be published in issues of Philological Quarterly
--HA!--Though he doubts that a general reader would be very much interested.
-- What a hoot.
This is the type of well-rounded attention to detail I came to expect from Hartley, becoming familiar with his work after having fortunately stumbled upon his mystery novel, What Time Devours. See my review. And it's what makes Will Power read with the veracity of a mysterious and exciting in-but-out-of-this-world historical chronicle, rather than pure fantasy.

Although I must admit, upon finishing Will Power, I immediately began a quest
to find book #1 --Act of Will , Will Power certainly holds up to
its billing as a 'stand-alone' fantasy novel. But trust me, if you're a fantasy
fan, you too will be looking for more from Professor Hartley, past or future. This book, as well as all of his others, no matter the genre, is recommended reading. JM

From Tor/Forge Publishing: British-born writer A. J. Hartley is the Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Dept. of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As well as being a novelist and academic, he is a screenwriter, theatre director, and dramaturge. He is married with a son, and lives in Charlotte.