The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Shards of Light

Test of Fire by William L. Hahn

In Test of Fire, William L. Hahn proves that great writers do not need to have their heroes save the planet to construct a gripping tale. What it takes is fascinating, well-developed characters willing to risk everything they have for a cause they believe in. That’s the situation that Querlack finds himself in. He’s a retired adventurer who has invested his loot from his wilder days in a foef—a bit of mostly swampy land that doesn’t appear to have much of a future. A poor investment by any contemporary standard, made more so by Querlack’s determination to better the land for the sake of his peasants, not to milk it for every coin he can extract from it.

His neighbor, Sir Cran-Kalrith Pritaelseran is a hard elf with a rigid sense of honor that basically comes down to the following—everyone exists to better him. He finds his new neighbor offensive and decides to continue a centuries old conflict and attempt to expand his own borders—a strategy he has used successfully on other neighbors. It’s a serious threat, but not the only one Querlack faces as he learns more and more about his new home.

This is a great book—made all the better by its primary focus on a relatively small territory. Hahn has always been capable of “painting” the master strokes of epic conflict—demons threatening his Lands of Hope. Now he proves he can be just as effective in small scale adventures and in doing so makes us cherish his characters all the more.

Shards of Light

There are a multitude of problems facing the city of Cryssigens in this heroic fantasy series by William L. Hahn. The emperor the city reluctantly serves has just been overthrown and replaced by a dwarf who had the utter gall to conclusively demonstrate that the former Overlord of the city was secretly leading a cult of demon worshipers. Now it’s time to pick a new Overlord who will determine whether or not the city will rediscover its peace and stability or erupt into chaos.

This a wonderful series—one of my favorite fantasy tales of all time. The thing that makes it so different than the typical fantasy is the remarkable distinctiveness with which Hahn draws his three primary characters. Captain Justin, Feldspar the Adrenalin-Crazed Stealthic (quite possibly the most unique hero in all of fantasy literature), and the mysterious priestess, W'Starrah Altieri. Their voices are utterly unique and well-suited to their personalities. And the crisis they confront is totally satisfying.

The Ring and the Flag by William L. Hahn

E-book version:

The Ring and the Flag is great Heroic Fantasy in a novella-sized package. If you've never read this author, this is the perfect book to sample him with. There's a lovable hero, a serious challenge, an unexpected plot twist, an exciting battle which really shows off the hero's leadership skills and tactical understanding, and to top it all off there's an awesome fantasy beast. As an extra special bonus, it's easy to see that Hahn's fantasy world is teaming with other stories just waiting their opportunity to reach the reader. I'm off to start the second book in the series. 

Audio version:

This is my second time reviewing this novella. I really enjoyed the e-book version. It’s set in a richly developed world where new stories wait for you around every twist of the trail. I was so thrilled with it that I rushed out to immediately start the second and third books in the series and waited very impatiently until the astoundingly good conclusion was finally published. So let’s be clear, this is a great story on its own merits, but when you add the author’s exceptional audio talents, The Ring and the Flag leaps to a whole new level of excellence. Hahn handles the voices of his cast of heroes superbly, and then adds in numerous sound effects that bring his world to ever-more-vibrant life. It’s exceptional! The sort of story you’ll gladly listen to again and again and again.

Fencing Reputation by William L. Hahn

E-book version:

I finished reading Fencing Reputation today and all I have to say is that Feldspar is just the right kind of crazy. Okay, I can't leave it at that. The tone of this novel is totally different from that of the first book in the series and it really fits a very different kind of hero. This is a fast-paced combination of action and mystery and the only real problem I have with it is I have to wait for the next two books to be published to find out what's going to happen. Well done indeed! 

Audio version:

When I first read this book I scored it 4 stars and now after having listened to the audio version I can’t figure out why it was so low. Feldspar is an intriguing character who caught my interest immediately. As I noted in my first review, he’s the right kind of crazy—talking to himself, arguing with himself, bargaining with himself as he seeks excitement and danger in the service of Hope. Feldspar is hired to find a priceless treasure that could play an important role in the political struggle roiling the city of Cryssigens and watching him hunt for it is pure pleasure.

For me, however, the wild ride of Feldspar stalking the night was not the greatest joy of the novel. It was watching this friendless loner forge his first genuine human relationships and seeing how that affected his preconceptions of the world and his place in it.

This truly is a great book. There was no place in the story where I wanted to stop the recording and put it away for a while. The narration was superb with just enough sound effects to lift it above a simple book reading. If you like clever fantasy adventures with one of the best protagonists I’ve ever encountered, give Fencing Reputation a try. 

Perilous Embraces by William L. Hahn

The first time I read this book, I raced through it seeking to build on the first two and learn what was coming next. That was a mistake. This is a book that needs to be savored. It deserves a saunter rather than a run. And if you are wise enough to take your time, you will find a novel of great subtlety deftly handled by an extraordinary writer.

William L. Hahn’s greatest strength may be his ability to adopt extremely distinctive voices for his characters. The first three books in his Shards of Light series each picks up the tale of a different player in an unfolding political crisis. Captain Justin is trying to keep the region peacefully in the Empire. Feldspar, the adrenaline junky, gets involved despite his lack of interest in politics when he’s hired to locate a magical artifact. And finally, the priestess, Altieri, who is trying to build a political alliance that will prevent the Emperor from feeling the need to come forth and crush a rebellious region. Each book in the series thus far has been told from a different one of these perspectives and each in a very distinctive voice. And each story weaves in and out of the tales of the other characters braiding the series together in a most satisfying way.

Perilous Embraces is the critical book of the series. Justin and Feldspar, the heroes of the first two novels, are outsiders who never really understand the civil war that is brewing. But the priestess heroine of this third novel has the familiarity with the city to fully understand the danger just as she has the skills to sort through the factions and find out who the true villains are. So W'Starrah Altieri, guided by the confusing visions of the future bestowed upon her by the Stargazer, risks everything she has to keep her city from erupting in bloodshed and death using the weapons of a politician—words and innuendo—rather than swords and daggers.

Once again, Hahn’s narration and sound effects richly add to the drama of his story. He is a master of the spoken word and it greatly enhances the experience. Right up to the utterly surprising end. 

Shards of Light by William L. Hahn

E-book version:

For those of you who have been impatiently waiting for this book to be published for the past six months, rest assured that it is worth every moment of anticipation. In Shards of Light, Hahn masterfully brings the plotlines from the three preceding books together into a climatic final novel that tops everything that came before it. There is more action, more mystery, and thankfully, many more revelations as the conspiracy is exposed. There are also several significant surprises and some important moments of painful character growth.

My favorite character coming into this book was Feldspar and he holds on to the top spot, but just barely. Captain Justin gains some important depth and Altieri—I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll settle for reporting that she grew mightily in my esteem. There are supporting characters which are also increasingly important, not the least of which is the Man in Grey whom I gather has a couple of books of his own which I will be reading soon.

There is a lot to praise in this concluding volume. Hahn has always impressed me with his ability to adopt different voices for his characters and he interweaves those voices effortlessly in this novel. Yet, he’s so much more versatile than that, moving from deft military actions to the spy-like efforts of Feldspar to the complex swirl of politics and religion which motivate so many of the powers in the city. Perhaps what strikes me most profoundly as I look back upon it is how rich Hahn’s Lands of Hope are in their history. I can’t stop here. I’m going to have to read the rest of them. 

Audio version:

Shards of Light was a great novel even before William L. Hahn added his audio talents to the text. It’s the capstone to an extraordinary fantasy series that mixes deft military action and thrilling cloak and dagger adventure in a headlong rush to prevent a mad elf from using some religious fanatics and a monstrous army of Despair from destroying the city of Cryssigens in his quest for power. The last three books brought us to the point of uncovering and understanding the nefarious plot. Now it remains to be seen if our heroes have what it takes to save the city. It’s far from certain, as the end of book 3, Perilous Embraces, already showed us. If you think you know precisely what will happen in the conclusion, my guess is that you’re wrong.

So to be crystal clear here, we’re talking about a five star text which I have already reviewed under the e-book edition. What I want to discuss now is how an excellent audio narration can take a superb novel and elevate it into something that breaks the five-star scale. I have listened to hundreds of audio books in the past two decades and every once in a while you find a narrator who has the magical combination of vocal talents to bring a text to life in a manner that the mere printed page will never succeed in doing. It’s the subtle intonations that convey fear, excitement, joy and anger. It’s the wide variety of voices that key the listener to who is speaking before the text gives the information away. It’s the energy that propels the tale forward with ever growing power as we rush to an epic and wholly satisfying conclusion. Then you add in a smattering of special sound effects—the breaking of glass, the roar of flames, the shriek of a griffon—that trick the listener into thinking you are right there in the action.

The end result of combining a gripping adventure with the vocal talents of a master performer is a titanic listening experience. Shards of Light delivers at all levels—plot, characterization, surprises and performance. Treat yourself to this one. If you love epic fantasy, I bet you’ll find yourself returning to it again and again.

Judgement's Tale

This is a towering work of fiction that reads much better as a complete work than it does in smaller installments. It’s the Tolkienesque story of the Lands of Hope—at peace for millennia—on the cusp of a renewal of their great war with the forces of Despair. The fulcrum upon which this story is built is Solemn Judgement, a fascinating young man of deep convictions whose outsider status permits him to see the weaknesses in the Lands of Hope that its long term inhabitants are blind to. That blindness is the crack that the forces of Despair intend to exploit to reignite the war and Solemn Judgement is the best “hope” to stop that from happening. Yet Solemn is a flawed hero as well and far from perfect which makes his efforts endlessly fascinating.

I read this omnibus because I had encountered Solemn Judgement in Hahn’s Shards of Light series and absolutely loved the enigmatic character. But there are many more intriguing characters in this story—a prince struggling to keep to the path of honor and avoid a senseless war, a band of adventurers seeking their fortune through the extermination of evil, and an intriguing knight whose religious devotions mask a serious problem in the city of Conar. This is an impressive work of fantasy that deserves to be taken alongside the great tales of Donaldson and Jordan. You won’t regret reading it.

Games of Chance by William L. Hahn

Tolkienesque may be the best way to describe this novella which opens up William L. Hahn’s Judgement’s Tale saga. From the opening pages (a touching scene of a boy burying his father) this novella paints a rich tapestry of a world precariously perched on the blade’s edge between an era of peace and one of approaching calamity. The characters are vibrant individuals trying to come to grips with the changing times, yet none are more intriguing then the boy in the opening chapter. Solemn Judgement is a stranger in the Lands of Hope, but I’m guessing he’s going to be key to their survival in the coming crisis. In addition to his strong characterizations, Hahn’s greatest strength is his flair for dramatic dialogue, which moves his story along with deft strokes that had me longing for the next conversation. Be warned that this story truly is also Tolkien-like in that it ends without resolving any of its storylines, but as the next parts of the tale have already been published, this isn’t a problem.

Strength of Conviction by William L. Hahn

Picking up where Games of Chance left off, Strength of Conviction plunges the reader directly into the dragon fire with a group of adventurers striving to free a town from the tri-fold threat of giant flying and crawling insects, and of course, the dragon. There’s a bizarre mystery here and I cringed when the adventurers uncovered the secret behind the region’s woes. In another part of the Lands of Hope, Solemn Judgement continues to astound those around him with the incredible strength of his conviction—frightening those of lesser faith and more fragile beliefs. The story does not end with this volume, but it will certainly have you reaching for the next book in the series.

Reunion of Souls by William L. Hahn

The tension builds to extraordinary heights in the penultimate volume of Will Hahn’s Judgement’s Tale. The title character’s investigations lead him toward a power that could greatly weaken the forces of Despair while heroes gird themselves for what I can only assume will be a climatic ending to the series. Hahn generates a palpable sense of wonder and excitement as his heroes uncover clues to an ancient and tragic domain where the forces of Hope and Despair inconceivably came together with common purpose. As testament to the author’s skill, in one of the subplots he turns a literal academic mystery involving hidden messages in ancient texts and the difficulties of translating ancient languages into a nail biting piece of drama. There is a tremendous amount to love in this volume so don’t give in to the temptation to rush forward to find out what’s going to happen next. Take your time and savor the exploration of the Lands of Hope. You’ll be glad you did.

Clash of Wills by William L. Hahn

The conclusion to Judgement’s Tale is packed with non-stop action and answers a lot of the questions that have been weighing on the minds of the readers through the first three volumes. The threats are both physical and intellectual in nature and their solutions reveal a lot about the dichotomy of Hope and Despair that forms the basis of Hahn’s world—and the solutions make sense as our heroes discover them. A word of warning, however, this book is not for the faint of heart. Hahn, like the semi-divine heroes and villains of his series, likes to play with the feelings of Hope and Despair in the readers and there are some hard blows taken in this story. Mistakes are made and the price is high for those misjudgments. And there is growing evidence that the forces of Despair have subtly infiltrated the heartland of its enemies like some insidious sickness. This volume may bring Judgement’s Tale to an end but the Chronicles of the Lands of Hope must continue!

The Eye of Kog by William L. Hahn

The Eye of Kog answers all the questions that lingered after the conclusion of book 4 (Clash of Wills) in the Judgement’s Tale series. The tension builds steadily throughout the series as a lich and demon released to imperil the world at the end of the last book set out to bring their individual brands of hell to earth. Because Hahn, in Game-of-Thrones-like fashion, seems willing to kill off all of his characters, the reader never knows just who is going to make it to the end.

There are a lot of storylines to keep track of, but I found it was very easy to pick up the threads of each plotline and re-engage with the character even though it had been several months since I finished book four in the series. The surprise was that Hahn managed to bring all of these disparate storylines together for a double-climatic ending. This is the sort of book that High Fantasy was meant to be—exciting characters engaged in inspiring deeds in a world that is riddled with history and budding with many more stories waiting to be told. You won’t regret reading it!

The Plane of Dreams by William L. Hahn

William L. Hahn’s first novel, The Plane of Dreams, is an excellent introduction to his Lands of Hope and is packed with appearances by the characters who drive his later stories. From the opening paragraph, I was sucked into this tale of danger haunting a group of adventurers—a cursed item which threatens to corrupt the world. Hahn attacks the problem from multiple angles—storylines which do not initially appear to be related but which intertwine seamlessly by the end of the novel. The Plane of Dreams is a hard driving adventure novel set in a world rich with history and excitement and unlike any other fantasy world I have ever read about.

The Book of Tales by William L. Hahn

William L. Hahn is very serious about his world building. How else to explain The Book of Tales—a book of children’s stories told by the denizens of his Lands of Hope to their children. It’s a clever and very creative idea. Many of the stories read like Aesop’s Fables or Just So stories and deal with the animal world. Others are the sorts of stories people tell about the heroes of the past to teach moral lessons—sort of like George Washington and the cherry tree, or Abraham Lincoln and his penny. And as I said at the start of this review, because Hahn is very serious about his world building, I’m fairly certain that these stories get referred to in his more “serious” epic fantasy. Guess I’ll find out when I read them again.