The Adventures of Benjamin Skyhammer is a book I could easily have overlooked had I not been approached by the author to review it. It has a very nice cover, but the title and the description would not necessarily have hooked me had I simply been browsing. However, having picked it up and read through the entire novel, I can say that I am very, very glad to have spent my time in this particular volume. It is by no means perfect, but this is a fun adventure story that shows a great amount of creativity on the part of the author and bodes very well for her future writing career.
The novel centers around a man named Skyhammer who lives in a world where every human possesses magic–except for himself (and one other minor character we never actually meet), and for this reason he is largely ostracized from society. He is a relic hunter who partners with a rather powerful magic worker named Higgins to travel the globe finding artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder. Early in the novel, Skyhammer gets blamed for a plot that appears to be attempting to wipe out magic altogether. He spends most of the book on the run in search of the real perpetrator, and in the meantime discovers a far greater conspiracy that does in fact threaten all magic–as well as the existence of several of the planet’s intelligent races/species.
In a nutshell, that description does nothing for the story, as the plot can be a bit convoluted, though Ms. Sheldrake always does an adept job of tying the knots up and making things make sense. The book is filled with wonders to behold, and I sense the author has put a lot more effort into her world-building than many an author, though this never slows the book down. Everything is very layered and complex, and on a par with some of the best books in the fantasy genre, in my opinion.
Where this book really shines is in the complex magic systems in play. Each of the planet’s races (I think there are seven or eight of them) are very different, and you get the sense, as Skyhammer stumbles through their societies, that you are in a very alien place. And each race has its own peculiar magic system, independent of the others, yet ultimately tied together in a way I can’t reveal without spoiling the story’s climax. Still, we are not dealing with typical fantasy fare here, but with some really delightfully original systems.
Humans, for example, work magic by drawing images on slates to manipulate the real world. Sounds simple, right? Well, the slates are made from a mixture of blood and glass, and as the practitioner draws on his own with his finger, the blood in the glass forms the picture. The magician then blows on the slate and, hey presto, magic happens–except when someone more powerful is countering the spell, in which case the spell fails. The system is complex, and the only gripe I have here is that Ms. Sheldrake does not really explain it very well early on, so that by the time she actually gives us a technical explanation of how magic works for humans, I had been reading with entirely the wrong image in my head for half the book.
The plot itself, while filled with twists and turns, is relatively straight-forward. There is nothing earth-shatteringly new here, and much of the climax is telegraphed (albeit subtly) so that almost all of the final scene was already guessed at. There are a few surprises held in reserve, though, but careful readers will see much of the end coming. What is good here is character development. At the start, I got the feeling that Skyhammer was just a man with a chip on his shoulder against a society that has spurned him. As the novel progresses, Ms. Sheldrake peals back the layers on an incredibly complex person. It could have been very easy for the author to play with stereotypes, but she has not, and so while the plot seemed straight-forward enough, it was really in the interplay between Skyhammer and his close friend/assistant/sidekick Higgins that the real “magic” exists.
There are a few other problems I have have with the novel as it stands. Parts of it felt unpolished, not only in the occasional typo, but in the quality of the writing itself. The ending, too, felt a little unsatisfying, as the societal reaction is counter to what I’d been led to expect it would be. There is a sense of tragedy hanging over the end of the book, which is fine, but I felt that much of the ending was an attempted copout so things wouldn’t be that heavy and cut against what we’d learnt to expect in the rest of the book.
At the end of the day, The Adventures of Benjamin Skyhammer is a fun book to pick up and read over the course of a weekend. The action ticks along at a fine pace, our hero develops as a human being in believable and satisfying ways, and you really feel you’ve visited an entirely new and alien realm.
My Rating: ★★★★★