Monday, September 18, 2023

Review: Lord of a Shattered Land by Howard Andrew Jones

A story that uses the story of a famous general in history and fuses it with sword and sorcery landscape, worldbuilding, and writing style.


You know the name, even if you don't know much about Roman history. Hannibal, the Carthaginian. Hannibal, the terrible foe of Rome. Hannibal, the guy who brought elephants over the Alps!  

Hannibal's story is one of ultimate failure, however. He could not beat Rome, for reasons that are complex and debated to this day. It is his afterlife that is far less known. You know that Hannibal and the rest of Carthage were beaten. And then? Probably if you are not a history nerd, you haven't thought much about it. But Hannibal had a 20 year tragic afterlife after his final defeat, one that marked him working with Rome's enemies, wandering the Mediterranean, and ultimately drinking poison to avoid capture by the Romans.

Howard Andrew Jones uses the story of his Hannibal-like figure, Hanuvar, and what happens to him after the fall of his Carthage, here Volanus, in Lord of a Shattered Land. Jones uses the afterlife of Hannibal and imagines it going very differently, in a Classical-era type Mediterranean world that is clearly inspired by ours (as given by the map).

Jones tells Hanuvar's story in an episodic format, picking up his survival of the fall of Volanus, and having a series of adventures across the land. The chapters, especially in the early portion of the volume, feel like a "fix-up" of previously published short stories. Each of the early chapters is a self contained story in a progression, that refer to previous stories and adventures, but very much are stand alone units. I imagine Jones could read from any of the early chapters in a reading at a con successfully as a result. And having this episodic feel gives the early chapters of the book the same feel as a set of Conan stories, or stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser

This goes to the sword and sorcery mode of this book. What Jones has done is create a Classical-era Mediterranean environment as a sword and sorcery world, dropped a Rome and Carthage into it, and made the fallen Hannibal into his hero.  

The world itself. Sure the Dervans are Rome, Volanus was Carthage, there are indications of cognates of the Celts, and Egypt, and the map supports all this. But there are differences here. Jones is most definitely not doing a beat-for-beat look at the history of Rome and Carthage. 

First up, this Rome is not a Republic, but rather it is an Empire with an Emperor. We never go anyway near the heart of the Empire, never meet the Emperor, but it is clear that this is not the Republic of the Punic Wars, although the transition is said to have been relatively recent. In addition, there were just two wars against Carthage in this timeline, not three. 

I can see why he did all this. Consider this history nugget from our own timeline: After Hannibal was defeated and Carthage lost, Carthage was NOT destroyed. In fact, it lasted a good 70 years or so longer, until a Roman senator started the famous "Carthage must be destroyed" war drum, and it was then, against a weak Carthage that stood no chance, that Carthage was finally conquered and destroyed. 

So I am okay with the "changes" (sic) that Jones has made to Roman history. He is going by what makes for a world that makes for the kind of story he wants to tell, but I am curious as to how his alt-Rome got this way and why it went on this "accelerated" path toward an autocratic Empire. 

But let's go deeper. This is definitely a sword and sorcery world rather than just a reskinned alternate Classical-era Mediterranean.  And it is not a high magic world like, for example, Cass Morris' Aven. Magic is relatively rare, not well understood, and always dangerous. There are genii loci, local powers, dark magicians, and dread creatures. It's a world where such creatures and powers are in the out of way places, the mysterious islands, the isolated valleys, the hidden locales of the world. Given Hanuvar and his quest and where it leads him, it is understandable he would wind up in such places, frequently. Lord of a Shattered Land is a novel where the vignettes, the stories often have that sorcery along with the sword, make up much of his adventures. 

The choice of hero finally really should be highlighted here and on a couple of levels. Hanuvar is a character that is relatively uncommon in sword and sorcery. Hanuvar is a fallen hero, an older man, one with a daughter, one that, for a while anyway, his enemies think is very safely dead. He is a father, and would be a father to his shattered and enslaved nation, and this is the throughline that runs through the book. Hanuvar seeks freedom for his people. Moving Hanuvar to the time of the destruction of his Carthage and the killing of many and the enslavement of the remainder gives Hanuvar a clear story and a clear goal. And it is a personal story. He had left his city for many years, did not get to see his daughter, and the fate of his daughter - dead, captured, something else, is a throughline in the book for him. He is a very upright and moral character. He is not a man seeking to topple the Deruvan Empire. He is not seeking to kill every Deruvan he comes across. He is seeking to free the remnants of his people, find his daughter, and lead them to freedom. This gives our hero a moral core, makes him a clear protagonist, and leads us to root for him.

In real ways this is refreshing. Hanuvar can be bloody minded and ruthless in his methods, but he is a very moral and upright person. With a fair chunk of the realms of fantasy under the seemingly permanent penumbra of Grimdark, Hanuvar stands out in very stark, and very welcome, relief.

And the stories within the novel are brisk, energetic, aerobic and are ultimately page turners. It is sword and sorcery in the classic style, so the worldbuilding is teased out here and there, the action described strongly (and sometimes rather viscerally). It is an exemplar of a mode of fantasy that, again, is a bit out of fashion in much writing today. Even as this is the first book in a series, this is not, as much as I love it, big phat epic fantasy where walls of words and worlds are the rule of the day. As the novel progresses, the events of previous stories do build up an edifice of a narrative, but there is overall a pleasing leanness to the way that Jones has written Hanuvar's story. 

Needless to say, given the size and enormity of Hanuvar's quest, he does not succeed in his quest by the end of the book. But this is where the episodic nature of the book really works in its favor. You can read this book and get a good single volume, multiple short story look at the life of a strong and well defined character.  I suspect though that, like me, if you have followed Hanuvar to the end of this book, you might be very interested in the continuance of his adventures and his quest.


The Math


  • delenda est? Hanuvar has no time for rest!
  • Sword and sorcery really works in an alt-Mediterranean environment

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Jones, Howard Andrew Jones, Lord of a Shattered Land, [Baen, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.