A Quest of Heroes

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This castle only appears in a brief conversation between two characters at the end of the novel.

This castle only appears in a brief conversation between two characters at the end of the novel.

It was with some trepidation that I started on this Quest.  (Pun too obvious?)  The generic high fantasy title suggested to me a generic high fantasy tale, and for the most part that’s exactly what you get.  Quest hits on many of the common fantasy tropes – the youth who feels he doesn’t belong, the noble bastard, the scheming princeling, a mysterious court magician…  As an avid consumer of Tamora Pierce novels in my youth, I felt that I was retreading very familiar ground with this book.  The reader I am now found the novel predictable and a bit too cliché for enjoyment, but the reader I was then would have thoroughly enjoyed it.  With that in mind, I will attempt to channel my twelve-year-old self and give this thing a fair evaluation.

The novel is called A Quest of Heroes, and draws its title from a piece of dialogue in the penultimate chapter of the book in which the hero’s mentor offers the boy some life advice:

“The greatest knight does not quest for riches or honor or fame or glory. The greatest knight takes the hardest quest of all: the quest to make yourself a better person. Every day, you must strive to be better. Not just better than others— but better than yourself. You must quest to take up the cause of those lesser than yourself. You must defend those who cannot defend themselves. It is not a quest for the light-hearted. It is a quest of heroes.”

If reading this paragraph has given you a strong aversion to the novel and it’s writing style, congratulations.  You’ve already determined that you are not going to enjoy this book and can stop reading here.  If you find the dialogue inspirational, then you are probably the target audience for this novel and should also stop reading before you spoil it for yourself.

Still here?

Good.  We go on.

Let me restate that this novel is a wonderful novel for child fantasy fans on the cusp of young adulthood.  There is romance here, but it is very PG, with none of the relationships evolving beyond kissing and hand-holding.  Even the characters’ thoughts are chaste, with characters feeling more love than lust.  If your tween loves RedwallSong of the Lioness, and/or the Inheritance Cycle, they’ll probably like this book too.  It works well as children’s/YA fantasy, simply because young people are not yet familiar with tropes (or, if familiar, are not yet bored with them).  An older reader will roll their eyes at Thorgrin’s conviction in his own destiny, realizing, perhaps, that everyone thinks they’re unique or special when they’re 14, but this is precisely why it will appeal to young readers.  It is also why I wouldn’t recommend this to an adult lover of YA novels.  If you enjoy stories that allow you to identify familiar tropes or are unbothered by predictability, then you may well enjoy the tale.  If you enjoy YA because of its ability to innovate old tropes, there’s probably nothing here for you.

Rice could stand to tone down Thor’s Gary Stu attributes.  I didn’t stop to count how many days he spends in King’s Court, but it’s clear that he gains status quickly.  For me, he went from unknown to royal darling far too quickly for it to be meaningful.  In part I think that we are meant to read Thor as an unreliable narrator who fails to realize that he can fall out of favour as quickly as he entered it, but that does not explain why anyone and everyone is constantly harping on about the boy’s destiny:

“He will become a great leader . And a great warrior. He will rule kingdoms in his own right. Far greater kingdoms than yours. And he will be a far greater king than you. It is his destiny.”

So prophesies Argon, the King’s magician, whose logic seems to run that as the boy is special and must be treated especially well.  Or, in his own words:

“The boy needs to be trained. He needs to be given the best of everything. It is your responsibility.”

There is something entirely too easy about this for me.  He is beloved by fate and therefore needs to be catered too.  It is every teenager’s dream, I suppose, becoming great by simply being yourself, but without all the angst of having one’s actions predetermined that faces someone like Rand al’Thor.  This Thor’s friendships seem as precarious as his status at court: he wins friends through grand acts rather than personality or kindness, suggesting that the other boys are attracted to Thor as a noteworthy person rather than as an individual.  One must ask whether he is really making friends or simply gaining lackeys.

This is the first book in a long series and the protagonist is very young.  Rice could have spent more time charting Thor’s progression through King MacGil’s court and would still be able to tell the story of a young man making his way through life.  Instead, Thor essentially goes from an unappreciated shepherd to the hero of the King’s Court in a week, and as a result even Thor realizes how ridiculous his luck is.  While I’m name-dropping YA titles, I’ll compare Thor to the titular protagonist of Ender’s Game.  There, you’ve got the prolonged story of a “special” boy who gradually earns his colleagues’ respect, but as a result alienates himself from both them and his teachers.  He doesn’t complain about training being hard or beneath him.  With Thor, you get the exact opposite.  Thor earns respect instantly through brave but stupid deeds and is befriended and praised for his own lack of foresight.  As a result, he learns no patience or respect for others, and regularly complains about the tasks he is set.  He is apparently too special for the usual rules to apply to him, which is thoroughly annoying if you happen to dislike his character, and thoroughly unrealistic if you’re an adult looking back.  One thing I would like to see from future novels in this series is a growing self-awareness in Thor.  His mentor tasks him with improving himself, so this is not entirely out of the question.  He may be a chosen child, but there is room for improvement in his character.

Overall Rating: 2/5 stars (with an additional third star if you are reading this as a novel for tweens)

Read it if: You’re a young fantasy fan looking for a novel about a young boy with a great destiny.

Skip it if: You’re an adult looking for a cutting-edge, trope-defying fantasy novel.

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