The Fifth Vertex
The Sigilord Chronicles Book 1
By Kevin Hoffman
Self Published – 2nd August 2014
ISBN 0990647919 – 290 Pages – Paperback
Picking up a book with no established publishing provenance, large or small press, is always a bit risky in terms of time, a lot like going through a slush pile, or scraping the sidewalks of New York City’s jewelry district for gold shavings. James Patrick Kelly has a great On the Net feature about this topic for this month’s Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Kelly writes about the need for some sort of better curation of ‘indie’ authors; that is definitely the case, but I too am unsure how this can be pulled off until a group of already-respected indie authors organize some type of recommendation system. Until then, it is an unfortunate matter of chance, of some undefinable element attracting a reviewer’s eye to fit it into reading schedules.
I don’t recall why I requested this on NetGalley, but it was probably the combination of seeming like a plot I may enjoy and the novel already having some reviews that indicated aspects, such as the protagonists here, that seemed noteworthy to give it a shot. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad I had the chance to read this fantasy novel, which bills itself as young adult mostly to my eyes because of the protagonist’s age. Based on this first book of a planned series, I think that The Sigilord Chronicles could go into some really interesting directions and will be looking for the followup to come.
The plot of The Fifth Vertex is a standard one, familiar to any fantasy reader and perhaps even one you might be tired of: the coming of age tale of a likable, socially outcast young man who ends up on a quest and discovers powers of which he previously was unaware. But, while Hoffman doesn’t particularly cover any new ground in this regard, he does make this archetypical tale really entertaining. Through the development of an interesting society and well-formed protagonists, Hoffman makes the story compelling.
The first protagonist is Urus, and though he comes from a well-to-do stratus of his society, his place (role) in that society is not determined as much through birth as much as through testing his worth as a warrior. For it is a warrior that the society most respects, and what Urus is expected to be as his family before him. Urus defines himself according to this limited narrative and perspective, but at heart he is more of a gentle soul, and while full of brains, has no brawn. The novel starts with his failure in his ‘testing’ and his subsequent attempt at suicide at having failed to live up to those expectations of society. The simple theme present here is easily recognizable and relevant to the world of reality, particularly for a young adult, so the story would have appeal for those readers. In addition to not meeting the expectations of being a warrior, Urus additionally must adapt to living in his society as a deaf person.
Characters with physical disability aren’t exactly common, and when present they usually serve as unfortunate caricatures or vehicles for showing how certain perceived limitations can actually have strengths of their own. Sadly they are never just included as a ‘regular’ person without the detail of disability ‘called out’ in a way integral to the plot. Here is no exception, but at least Urus is not objectified or mishandled here, falling more into that category where limitations perceived by the abled turn out to be vital for saving society and everyone’s life. For Urus this is not just the perceived weakness of his deafness, but also the perceived weakness of his physical strength and stomach for violence. Hoffman handles the deafness aspect in terms of the narrative with respect and it is interesting to read the explanations of the signage made between Urus and his companions.
The other point of view protagonist, a young orphan girl named Cailix, is another interesting character who starts as a servant at a monastery but is soon forced to ‘grow up’ too quickly when forcibly taken captive by a group of blood mages intent on gaining secret knowledge. As this plot intersects with Urus’, the reader begins to appreciate Cailix’s development from scared, somewhat sheltered child, to stronger, more wise young lady (in a manner similar to Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire, actually). There is a certain darkness and pessimism to Cailix that is a perfect complement to Urus, made literal in the way their ‘magical’ talents end up complementing.
Though fantasy, Hoffman makes some effort to explain the magical elements in The Fifth Vertex, from a rudimentary scientific perspective, making this a blend of speculative genres in some ways. Overall this is a really impressive book that will appeal to many SFF fans, and there is a diversity to the characters (including race that as others have noted is sadly not reflected in the cover illustration). Though taking the ‘self published’ (or ‘indie author’) route, The Fifth Vertex was really indistinguishable to me from something I’d expect from a genre paperback publisher.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the author via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.