The Dark One by Bill Purcell

The Dark One has been printed in paperback by a company called iUniverse. I use the word printed rather than published deliberately. iUniverse is one of a new breed of publisher/printers who are offering budding novelists an unconventional way of getting their books in print. New technology allows these print on demand companies to print and bind books as orders come in rather than investing a lot of money and warehouse space on a large print-run. When you break it right down, it’s self-publishing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of self-publishing. I love the idea of giving two fingers to the traditional publishing industry, which barely gives new writers the time of day. I love the idea of doing all my own typesetting, artwork, marketing, and cutting out all the middle-men who would want their slice of the pie. However, if there’s one big problem with self-publishing, it’s this: it allows the unpublishable to be published. And on that rather ominous note, I must ask the question: on which side of the fence does The Dark One fall?

This is a fantasy novel in the tradition of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. It has all the trappings of the genre and, rightly or wrongly, makes no apology for this: orcs, ogres, dragons, goblins, elves, dwarves, and of course, humans. The story centres around one human in particular: Roger Jenson, a cop from our world, bored with his unexciting job in his unexciting town. Then, one day, Roger is magically transported (in a humourous fashion) to a strange new world of fantastic creatures.

As Roger makes friends, he is given the title The Dark One, partly because he appears to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, and partly because he’s a black guy. On another comic note, there’s a slight problem with being black in this world, and it has nothing to do with racism. In this world, a dark-skinned person is the offspring of a woman raped by an ogre!

As with all good fantasy novels, there is a quest. The balance between good and evil is being threatened by a war which is brewing between the orc race and human race. Initially, Roger and his band of followers intend to fight in this war on the side of the humans, but as the story develops, it becomes imperative that they must prevent the war from getting started.

One aspect of this novel that I liked in particular was the author’s descriptions of swordplay. I was able to vividly picture every strike and block, and got a real impression that Purcell knows something about the art of fencing. I was also quite surprised when certain characters died, quite suddenly and brutally. It gave the whole story a great sense of unpredictability.

One thing I feel quite ambivalent about is the book’s brevity. A very large story is crammed into a mere three-hundred pages, and whilst I liked the way this kept the action flowing hard and fast, everything is very underdescribed. One example of this was an occasion when Roger led his friends into a battle that lost the lives of many. I expected him to pause afterwards and reflect on the fact that it was his decision that brought this situation about. There was room for so much character development here, but it’s all left uncharted, with the effect that the people never quite seem three-dimensional. The war between the humans and orcs, which is essentially the cornerstone of the story, is also underdeveloped. There was plenty of scope for the reader to be infused with a sense of impending doom, where it becomes clear that Roger must succeed or it’s the end of life as we know it. As it stands, the reader is left with a sense that Roger could simply say, “Screw this. I’m off to build my ranch and raise horses,” and everyone would have lived happily ever after.

Some of my criticisms may come down to personal taste, but there is one thing which is absolutely unforgivable. Normally it’s something I wouldn’t even have to mention in a review: typing and typesetting errors. You can overlook the odd one creeping in, but they are scattered all over the place. If you want to be a self-publisher, you’d better be prepared to put in the necessary legwork at the proof-reading stage.

Overall, an enjoyable but flawed fantasy novel, for fans of D&D.

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