By Sam Graham
It’s rare that a book jumps out at me and goes straight to the top of my ever-increasing 'stuff to-read' list. At this point, I'm pretty sure that list is going to outlive me. However about a month ago, the release of a book called Crystal Castle came to my attention. I gave it a read, and as you, my ever attentive reader, value my opinion so much (feel the sarcasm), I thought I'd give my two pence.
The first novel by John D. Ashton, from West Yorkshire, England, is a fantasy adventure wherein a handful of strangers find themselves in a strange land where they're led into battling a great evil. I don't read much fantasy, not since my family were killed by Orcs, but I thought it sounded like a pretty rad premise, and it's good to delve back into the genre once in a while, like how Rambo occasionally delves back in the The 'Nam.
The eponymous castle is the main evil, and the book opens very strong with one of the troupe recounting some legends of it. The castle is shrouded in mystery and some doubt it even exists. That is until the castle shows up, drops from the sky, and crushes the kid to death. That's right: castle lands on the kid and kills him in the opening chapter. It's mental. I had to see where this rabbit-hole went. After Johnny's death, we're introduced to Janice and Jason, who also die by the end of their respective chapters. They all find themselves alive again and in the middle of a desert with a man named Gabriel waiting for them. This man's the selling point of the whole book, their guide through this world, and ours, and while not the progenitor of their transportation, the fates guided him to them the same way they were guided to him.
Over the course of the adventure they face off native monsters, environmental dangers, and evil abominations. The kind of evil they encounter has a 'sword and sandal' feel to it: giant elephants, giant man-eating birds, and a skeleton army straight out of Jason & The Argonauts. Though not exclusively, the world of New Earth has a post-cataclysmic, western feel to it. Like what civilisation there was collapsed long ago as the Crystal Castle absorbed the very life from the ground, drying it up into a husk.
The story does a good job of keeping pace. There are moments of stillness where the troupe sit around and chat, but it doesn't drone on so long it becomes a chore. If anything, I want to know more about the characters and the world they find themselves in, but the narrative doesn't get bogged down with reams of Dickensian garbage and over-description. At no point are there any florid sentences or big words thrown in just to make the author feel good about himself, thankfully. It tells me what it is, and what it looks like. I can colour the rest in myself, which I can appreciate, because I hate being coddled by the narrative. It comes across a little formal at times, and sometimes overstates characters' actions, telling me what a character does, then why they did it, when I can figure out the why for myself. This is only on occasion though, as majority of the time its straight to the point.
As I said earlier, Gabriel is the main character. He's native to New Earth and he comes across as a lone gunslinger-type, a bearer of struggle who's no stranger to violence, similar to Roland Deschain from The Dark Tower. In fact, a lot of Crystal Castle reminded me of The Dark Tower: people from our world going to a dying otherworld, led by a lonely gunman on a quest to thwart mythical evil, but thankfully the similarities end there. John Ashton doesn't appear in the book as the crux of all creation, and he doesn't try to plagiarise just about every piece of everyone else's work that the 20th century put out. I digress.
Gabriel's a mysterious one. His past is only hinted at, but it’s clear that he's seen shit. He's gotten about. I'd have liked to have known more about his past: What he did for a living before his quest for the castle, how that mutant ended up with a piece of paper with Gabriel's own handwriting on it, and any previous adventures he may have had, but his intrigue is in his mystery-like that goth chick you saw in a nightclub once and you never had the balls to talk to.
Like Gabriel, the Crystal Castle is kept in mystery too. We learn very little about it. Why it exists, who, or why it was created. All we know is that it is evil. As we near the castle we are shown that it roots itself into the earth like a parasite, which is what I think explains the desolation of the world, and explains why it needs to be destroyed. While the lack of origin helps add to the mythical nature of it, it would have been nice to hear more legends, campfire tales from different characters maybe. Something that adds to its sense of menace.
It's very subtle, but there's talk of fate in there too. The small coincidence of the band's names all starting with J, and them magically showing up, post-mortem, at Gabriel's camp. It hints that there are larger forces at work, and they do all decide to take it as a sign from on high, but what those signs are, are a mystery.
All in all the characters are interesting, and the variety of challenges they face is wide enough so that you never guess what's coming. There's a lot of depth in the story that, while it may not be on the surface, because the narrative doesn't shove it down your throat, you get a sense of the grander scale of things as you get further through the story, and closer to the Crystal Castle.
Buy the book here.
Buy the book here.