Gorias La Gaul is looking for deliverance. For seven centuries he has walked the earth and battled all manner of monstrosities. Now, the years are catching up to him and the old man is weary of the world he no longer feels is worth living in. History is not quite finished with the living legend however. On a visit to the city of Khabnur to see his grandson, La Gaul is caught up in a war involving several parties. All of them are aware of his presence and each of them has their reasons to either try to enlist him or remove him from the field of battle. La Gaul is not interested in their causes but some of the things he sees around him cannot be ignored.
At some 260 pages, Thrall is a rather concise novel for all the things it tries to accomplish. Not only does the main character have a history of seven centuries, some of which is very relevant to the story, Shrewsbury also throws him in a three-sided war, La Gaul's offspring (the mothers are curiously absent though) and a whole host of strange sentient creatures. It's quite a lot for the reader to take in. The biggest problem this novel has, is conveying all this information to the reader. We see most of the story though La Gaul's eyes and he is not a man to voluntarily share his history, experience or knowledge. By the end of the book I had a fairly good idea where the author was going and what drove La Gaul to his actions but the motives of some of the other major players remain unknown. The most glaring of these omissions is the question why a barbarian chieftain would drag his people thousands of miles away from their home turf.
A little more attention to the worldbuilding would have made it a much more interesting novel. From what little we do get to see, Shrewsbury set the book in a time when men lived centuries, God and his angels regularly interfered in mortal affairs. It's a world in decline, spiralling into violence and, if some of the characters are to be believed, in thorough need of being washed clean of its sins. The Old Testament was clearly in inspiration to the author, although he has borrowed from other sources as well. The author indicates that a sequel is a possibility so perhaps we get to see a little more of this world and find out some more about the deeds that made La Gaul a legend.
I wasn't all that impressed with the prose either. Shrewsbury has a flair for witty dialogue but some of the descriptive passages were jarring. A random example for chapter IV:
The foursome rode hard for the rest of the night and the better part of the day. The structured skyline and marble domes of Khabnur were behind them fast. Outside the city limits, countryside rolled in gentle slopes. Empty fields awaited the serfs, for most of the land ran too rugged to plant. In the distance the hills humped into larger mountains, but that would not be an obstacle for them. They rode toward a series of scant forests, away from the heavy savannahs of the south-lands .Not a terribly well written passage, it raises a number of questions. The better part of the following day? The marbled domes of Khabnur were behind them? Is to be the verb we're looking for here? Why are there fields in the first place, if the land is too rugged to plant? Hills humping into mountains, there's got to be a more elegant expressing for this. Heavy is not a word I'd associate with savannahs. There are more passages like this, that really shouldn't have survived the editor's attention.
Ultimately, Thrall is a book that had potential but suffers enormously from a flawed execution. With a little more attention to the worldbuilding and some more polish applied to the writing it could have been a much better novel. As it is, the novel feels like a rough draft, a work that needs to be fleshed out in places. Plenty to work on if the author does indeed decide to write a sequel. Plenty of the world left to uncover as well. It would be a shame to let all that potential remain undeveloped.
Author: Steven Shrewsbury
Publisher: Seventh Star Press
First published: 2010