Ratcatchers Book 1
By Matthew Colville
ISBN: 0615512151This month's book club tome is a well-regarded self-published fantasy novel. Good on Colville for having the gumption to write and release such a labor of love but I found Priest to be somewhat slog to get through.
The cover proclaims Priest to be "A Fantasy Hardboiled" and it starts promisingly enough. Titular priest, Heden, is a former adventurer who became disillusioned with his church and now acts as a sort of fixer, doing jobs that the church cannot. He is introduced rescuing a young prostitute from a cult. She is promptly installed the pub he owns but never opens to live with his collection of fabulous magical items and possibly magic cat.
This sounds like a perfect setup for a long running 80s crime fighting drama, or maybe a sitcom - all you need to do is find someone to play saxophone on the theme music.
But things start to go downhill quickly as this plot line is quickly dropped in favor of the main quest. Heden is sent off to investigate a remote group of knights who guard a fantastically dangerous patch of forest. One of them has just been mysteriously killed and the church needs to know the hows and whys.
This all sounds pretty good but Priest suffers from several flaws, the biggest is Heden himself. You see, Heden is one of those guys with a capital-P Past - a life of adventure, pain, and regret that has left present day Heden so mopey and overpowered that I measured over 1300 milli-DzzA Drizzt is the standard measure of how mopey a lead character is despite being incredible powerful and successful, and is a function of unrequited love, tragic backstory, PTSD, deprived childhoods, rugged good looks, vivid but non-disfiguring scars, etc. The Dzz is a huge unit, most novels top out around the 80-100mDzz range. emanating off certain pages. Heden has the ear of a god, has enough magic items to power a small city, a 150D6 Sword of Comet-summoning and is able to kill dozens of the NOPMOsNot Orcs but Pretty Much Orcs that occasionally show up without breaking a sweat, but still spends most of the book complaining about his lot in life.
There are some ridiculous fight scenes - the worst involves a 400-foot high monster that somehow sneaks up on Heden while he is talking to one of the knights. This sort of thing works in video games but seems silly in a novel.
All this is a shame, because the basic idea is pretty good, a fantasy mystery where Heden plays the grizzled detective with the knights all suspects in the crime. But no-one will talk to Heden for most of the book so both he and the reader are left frustrated. When the solution is revealed, it hinges on such a arcane point that it felt like one of Asimov's robot-based short stories rather than a series of events involving real people.
There are some good points. The world-building is very role-playeryThe author is a long-time D&D player and makes popular YouTube videos about DMing but otherwise nicely realized. And I really liked that the main character was a straight-up cleric who had to follow certain rules to maintain favor. I wish that the novel had hewed to this path more closely rather than making Heden so stupidly powerful in his own right.
I think the author just bit off more than they could chew, plotwise. The writing (which is ... variable) just not able to support the story enough to plaster over the cracks. Heden is not an appealing character and for most of the story he is struggling on alone achieving very little. Most hard-boiled novels give the protagonist a sidekick to lighten things up.
Bottom line, there is a pretty good short story hiding in the corners of Priest, but it is buried under layers of chaff. I have a high tolerance of cheesy fantasy but even I can't recommend this.