Best Novel finalist review: Howard Andrew Jones’ Lord of a Shattered Land offers epic sword-and-sorcery saga with anti-slavery, anti-tyranny, pro-liberty themes

“Howard Andrew Jones is the leading Sword & Sorcery author of the 21st century… His Lord of a Shattered Land is his best work yet… It’s a magnificent achievement, destined to become a modern classic.”
— John O’Neill, World Fantasy Award-winning publisher of Black Gate

By Michael Grossberg

I admit I generally don’t enjoy fantasy as much as science fiction, but I loved Lord of a Shattered Land, one of the best sword-and-sorcery sagas I’ve read.

Howard Andrew Jones’s epic fantasy, published by Baen Books and one of 17 nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel, tells a gripping tale that powerfully and emotionally evokes the evils of slavery and tyranny and the passionate, unquenchable desire of people to be free.

Set in an ancient era loosely based on the conflicts between ancient Rome and Carthage, Lord offers solid world-building, suspenseful plotting, full-bodied characters and a propulsive pacing combined with separate “set pieces” that allow you to read the 615-page novel satisfyingly, chapter by largely self-contained chapter.

A MEMORABLE HERO

Hanuvar, the grieving but steadfast former general of the defeated Volani city-state, sets out on a quest in enemy territory to find and free the enslaved remnants of his beloved people.

Hanuvar also ranks among the most memorable characters I’ve read in years.  A true hero yet fully human (and thankfully not glamorized or reduced to near-cartoon caricature like many in the recent spate of increasingly tiresome comic-book superhero movies), Hanuvar is utterly believable but also admirable in his wisdom, restraint, maturity, and ethics, especially compared to many others in his barbaric era.

Hanuvar must apply his wits, discretion, patience, courage, caution and sober realism to forge tactical alliances and friendships to aid him on his quest.

Traveling through the many different cities and cultures invaded and taken over by the aggressive and imperialist Dervan empire that destroyed his own home and civilization, the general faces many different types of threats from humans and beasts alike – including some humans who have become veritable beasts. (Intriguingly, at least some of the deadly “supernatural” beasts encountered may actually be unusual biological species misunderstood in this pre-scientific era.)

 

Prometheus brought the gifts of fire and liberty to humanity

A THIRST FOR FREEDOM

Far more than merely another nominally libertarian story about characters fighting for rather abstract liberty against a generic tyranny, Lord of a Shattered Land weaves into its rich, varied and far-flung narrative more than a dozen key scenes or moments that underline what freedom means and how it motivates so many to try to achieve it for themselves and others.

For instance, among the enslaved groups that Hanuvar strives to free is Jerissa, a woman who muses to herself darkly about her future.  “If they escaped, there would be pursuit and bloodshed and failure in the end, but wouldn’t it have been worth it, to die free?”

Later, Jerissa initially becomes confused when she learns that Hanuvar is not coming with her on a sea voyage to an overseas colony far from the tyrannical Dervan empire, but instead will stay behind, risking death or enslavement:

“Though momentarily confused, her expression cleared. “You’re going to free some of the others, aren’t you?”

He spoke with an intensity that startled even himself.
“I’m going to free them all.”

THE RUEFUL REALITIES OF POWER
Several passages offer rueful recognition about the nature and limits of coercive rule and abuse of power in such a barbaric world:

“Answer me this, Antires. Why do playwrights always tell of kings and generals? Why not ordinary people?”
“They write about those with the power to do things.”
“The world would be better off if we exalted kings and generals less.”

A few such passages even add welcome humor.

For instance, when Hanuvar and his friend Antires temporarily hide from Darvan  soldiers at a circus, Antires wonders why the capable, intelligent and versatile former general doesn’t volunteer for easier, higher-status jobs than harsh and lowly menial labor, shoveling up after horses, elephants and other animals.

Hanuvar: “And yet you stand and stare.”
Antires: “At you, shoveling horse shit.”
Hanuvar: It amused him that Antires assumed such work beneath him.
“I was a statesman for years. This is cleaner work.”

THE TEMPTATIONS OF TYRANNY

One of the most resonant scenes highlighting the novel’s libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes involves a key test of Hangar’s integrity and commitment to freedom for all.

Hangar is offered the classic temptation of absolute power – comparable to the soul-draining lure of the “one ring to rule them all” and its power in The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner.

When faced with the prospect of seizing a mystical potion with proven ability to enslave others through some type of sorcery (or possibly poorly-understood drugged or biology-driven mind control), Hanuvar pauses for a dangerous moment of genuine temptation and reflection.

“He weighed the stopper in his hand as he metaphorically weighed the possibility presented him. How much simpler the challenges before him would be if he could command men’s unswerving obedience. No gates would be barred. All his people could be found and freed with but a few simple commands. Surely the creature could not affect him if it was locked far away, could it?
He hurled the jar to the floor tiles, where it smashed into tiny pieces.”

SUBTLETIES TO SAVOR

Lord of a Shattered Land only gradually reveals some of its deeper insights and themes.

A careful reading is rewarding, for Jones slowly builds, piece by scattered piece, a revealing mosaic of Volanus, Hanuvar’s lamented late city-state – an admirable free-trading, multilingual cosmopolitan enclave, similar to Venice or other Renaissance city-states that traded peacefully with the world, that we learn thrived notably without kings or slaves.

One often must learn, though about Hanuvar’s more-civilized people by reading between the lines of others’ chance comments.

For instance, a Dervan ruler’s daughter disparagingly tells Hanuvar:
“All those Volani and Herrenic ideas about mob rule are a plague.”
She touched his arm again, her cold fingers lingering.
“I don’t mean to equate your people with those money-grubbing Volani, but you must know that many of your customs are a little soft.”

Translated from imperialist Dervan attitudes into a more modern and libertarian/classical-liberal perspective, that snide reference to “mob rule” suggests that Volanus prospered as a more-modern representative limited-government democracy and/or free republic – all the more impressive, from a libertarian perspective, in an age of empire and barbarism.

Meanwhile, that privileged aristocrat’s “money-grubbing” comment should better be understood as a reactionary elite’s disparagement and dismissal of the honest and productive work of peaceful merchants, cosmopolitan free traders and free markets – historically, the moral and practical markers of the emergence of genuine freedom and economic growth by and for the cooperating masses.

Prometheus, the light bringer (Creative Commons license)

Overall, Jones is a superior writer who mostly shows us, rather than tell us, why freedom is so good and tyranny is so evil.

Few sf/fantasy novels have dramatized the lust for liberty and the lure of absolute power so well.

Postscript: Lord of a Shattered Land was selected as one of five Prometheus Best Novel finalists, announced in mid-April, 2024. Reviews of all five Best Novel finalists are being posted on the Prometheus blog.)

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees and read the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three , Part Four  and Part Five of our guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, other libertarian sf/fantasy fans and Prometheus-recognized sf/fantasy authors are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series of more than 100 past winners since 1979.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction, jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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