Elfhunter is something unique and rather special. In spite of the author’s admission of being heavily influenced by Tolkien, I felt this was an altogether different reading experience. Admittedly there are similarities in the bestiary and there’s a dark lord figure with multiple uprisings; but this is merely the stage for an exploration of character. It is an intelligent application of mythological themes forming the point of departure for a tale that bears more resemblance to Moby Dick than The Lord of the Rings.
It is a story of obsession and vengeance, with the she-elf Gaelen in the role of Captain Ahab. It is also much more than that: without Gaelen’s obsessive pursuit of the Elfhunter, Gorgon, there might never be a sufficient defence against his own relentless quest to eradicate the elves from Alterra.
Camaraderie is one of the key elements to this book, but it’s no simple matter of sharing ale and competing over how many orcs you can fell at Helm’s Deep. These characters are complex and, unlike Tolkien, Marks can write women (admittedly she does have an unfair advantage).
Her characters can be obtuse – they often prevaricate, they are sometimes riddled with self-doubt, but (and here I’m speaking of the central group of Companions) they are fiercely loyal and loving. We are privy to their private thoughts and the way they are perceived by the others. This creates for some compelling dramatic irony and great depth of character.
The principles are only revealed a bit at a time, the way we get to know people in real life. Whilst we have access to their thoughts, it is only brief as Marks is a proponent of the “omniscient narrator” technique and employs a good degree of head-hopping. If it’s done poorly, as it often is in fantasy, shifts of point of view can become confusing; but Marks does this extremely well, giving us a snippet of different characters’ reactions and inner-world without tripping up the narrative.
Something I struggled with initially, and later came to like, was the pace. Marks is in no hurry to kick-start the action. The first part of the book plods along, with the occasional sighting of the dark horror who comes to obsess Gaelen. There are endless journeys, gradually revealed back-story and the occasional well-measured flashback. All this established a firm footing for the reader but I did have to work at it. The main problem I had was more a matter of expectation. In the past twenty years or so, the norm in fantasy has been for fairly rapid progression, heaps of action and strict POV. Once I got used to the style and pace of Elfhunter, I settled into a reading experience that was (at first) more like settling into a warm bath than tearing at break-neck speed across an action-strewn landscape. I found (I hope some of our currently blinkered agents and publishers are paying attention) that I actually preferred it. Reading a novel should be a very different experience to watching a movie.
The closest comparison I could find, in terms of pacing, is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson, but I suspect Elfhunter is a bit more accessible to a wider readership.
The latter part of the novel changes gear, however, and we are propelled into a very satisfying conclusion where all the various points of view are woven together to generate the maximum tension.
One of the most important factors in determining whether or not a book is successful is the degree to which the reader can see what is happening without making any effort. On this count, Marks succeeds as well, and for an author who writes long passages of description, dialogue and back-story, she is also highly accomplished at action sequences. There is no gratuitous gore, however (this is apparently a YA novel). Some of the nastier deeds are reported, in the manner of Greek tragedy, and others are implied through the narration. The effect is the same, if not more disturbing in many cases.
The language is most definitely that of high fantasy. It took a bit of reorientation at first (particularly as I’ve just come off of a diet of new, “gritty” fantasy by the likes of Joe Abercrombie). There are different levels of “high” language too, ranging from the rather well-spoken English of the principles to the florid Shakespearean prose of Lord Wrothgar. When the elves speak in elven, the (English) words are italicised. After a while it becomes second nature recognising this.
For me, one of the greatest strengths of Elfhunter was the consistency with which Marks handles her vast material. Not only the enormous history of Alterra, the various uprisings of Wrothgar etc, but the little things that affect her characters. They are not introduced and then forgotten; they build the progression.
I shan’t say much about the antagonist, Gorgon, as that would be giving too much away. He is, however, a compelling baddy with a tragic and complex nature. This is no simple “good versus evil” tale (as much as the Wrothgar dynamic might suggest it). The closer Gorgon comes to Gaelen (who is both hunted and hunter) the more issues are thrown up for him. It doesn’t help that he has ghostly visits from an earlier elven victim either, in scenes that brought back fond memories of An American Werewolf in London.
Minor characters were also well-crafted. I found that I actually cared about their fates (Gelmyr and Belegund in particular); and if anything threatened the principles (or the horses...particularly Eros) I was rather concerned, to say the least. It’s a matter of personal taste, but my favourites were Orogond, the prevaricating ranger, and Fima the dwarf (who thankfully didn’t have a poor Scottish accent and was a much more thoughtful creation than the usual stereotype). Gaelen and her cousin Nelwyn were also a joy to read.
Another important point about Elfhunter concerns all independent writers. This book has been meticulously copy-edited and it shows. There were perhaps three minor typos (which is considerably less than most of the mainstream published work I read). Formatting is exceptional, and the overall book design is pleasing. There are some beautiful interior sketches, detailed maps, and compelling cover art.