Here’s an interesting little story that I can’t bring myself to dislike. Birth of a Lion is a pretty simple tale of a young warrior entering a brutal gladiator-style tournament to seek fame and glory. Swords-and-magic fantasy books aren’t usually my thing, but it has a crisp cover and a sharp blurb and it’s only 54 pages, so I figured—what the hell…why not give it a shot?
The Concept: C
It’s not a very original premise, but what I like about it is that it doesn’t pretend to be. As you read, you don’t get the sense that this book thinks it’s the greatest thing to happen to the fantasy genre since Sam told Rosie, “well, I’m back.” Even the author explains in his afterword that he wanted to keep the plot simple because this is his first book and the fighting tournament device made for a pretty straightforward narrative. The other thing Williams mentions in his afterword was something we already learned from the Amazon blurb and the story’s conclusion—this is the start of something bigger. The concept of Birth of a Lion may be simple and familiar, but it convincingly hints at more complex, more imaginative tales to come.
The Execution: B-
Again, I’m not usually into the swords-and-magic thing, but there wasn’t much of anything to dislike about the way this story played out. Much of the narrative covers the various rounds of combat that Leon endures, but his opponents and their physical and magical abilities are varied enough to keep stuff from getting boring boring. Unlike a lot of indie works, this one isn’t riddled with typos and poor formatting. For a self-professed debut author, Williams comes across as surprisingly capable and confident.
One thing that I didn’t exactly dislike but wasn’t a huge fan of was the occasional extraneous scene. There’s one part when our hero ventures away from the crowds of the arena and meets some chick who never becomes important to the story. I’m guessing she has a bigger role to play in later installments of the series, and it was probably necessary to establish her character and her relationship with Leon, but part of me was a little disappointed to discover that she was basically the book’s appendix, anatomically speaking. It’s fine that she’s in there, but she doesn’t serve a noticeable purpose and removing her wouldn’t jeopardize the story in any way.
Maybe the only thing that I can actually say I disliked was the moral murkiness. I mean, I’m a sucker for a theme of moral ambiguity, but this aspect of Birth of a Lion troubles me a little because I don’t think it’s trying to be ambiguous. Leon is presented as a normal guy trying to make a name for himself in the arena, but his disregard for human life makes him kind of difficult for me to connect with. The fact that he’s killing so many people for sport in his quest for glory is addressed, and it’s something he kind of briefly laments before pushing it out of his mind. Eventually he has some kind of moral crisis when one of his opponents turns out to be a kid. I’m glad that he has a problem with killing kids and all, but considering that his philosophy is to confront the reality of his murderous livelihood later, it’s hard to feel that his horror at the prospect of taking another life is genuine. Then again, I also got the sense that this is an issue the author knows about and it’s possible that this kind of thing will be given a more thorough treatment as the series continues.
The Writer’s Voice: B
I guess Williams didn’t really wow me with his writing, but there’s really nothing to complain about here either. He has no weird mannerisms or annoying habits. There aren’t any lines that made me envious that I hadn’t written them myself, but he also doesn’t aim for flowery prose and fall flat. It’s just some solid writing that does its job and tells an engaging story.
The X-Factor: B-
Maybe this is where my usual aversion to high fantasy is the problem. Fans of the genre may think there’s a more prominent X-Factor than I do. It does seem that Williams has put a lot of thought and planning into his fictional world. I admit I’m kind of intrigued by the kinds of magic utilized in the arena fights. There’s something about elemental magic, and the blood magic thing is pretty cool, I guess. There’s a glossary in the back of the dozen or so magical spells introduced in the story, and I get the impression that our magical vocabulary will have to expand as future installments take us to different places and pit our heroes against different foes.
The ending is decent. There’s an important element to it that I saw coming a mile away, but the part I didn’t predict was something I wouldn’t have predicted. Which I guess means that the ending makes logical sense without being too obvious. And that’s definitely a good thing.
The Final Round: B-
Birth of a Lion is a strong effort that promises more adventures. It seems that Charles Williams knows what he’s doing and his steady hand has guided us capably through an interesting tale of action and magic and a little mystery.
As I’m writing this, it looks to me like mine will be the first review on Amazon, and that bothers me. I think this book deserves more attention than some of our more well-known and more poorly-conceived titles in the indie world. This is the kind of stuff more indie authors should produce if we want to be taken seriously as a group. So I definitely recommend this one to anyone out there looking for a new read. At just 54 pages and only 99 cents, it’ll be worth it, especially to fans of dark fantasy.