Friday, March 13, 2009

Epic gay fantasy: The Lords of Harbendane

This novel should carry a warning: do not start reading when you get home from work at 7:00pm, even if the book is sitting on your doorstep ... because you're going to look like a zombie tomorrow, after having read till four in the a.m. to finish!

There's a certain "something" we've all come to expect from a Keegan novel. I'm still not entirely sure what it is but I should think scientific research could quantify it. Whatever it is, The Lords of Harbendane has it by the truckload. This one is Keegan pure and simple, with qualities that remind you of Fortunes of War and The Swordsman, Nocturne and Dangerous Moonlight. What qualities? Truth. Passion. Intelligence. Vision. Lyricism. And the "A-list" quality of a writer who's been on top of this game for two decades.

Picture this: it's a dark, dirty night, bucketing down, muddy, cold. The quintessential tall, dark, handsome warrior (he's a knockout -- trust me) is on a mission, and when he gets waylaid in a nasty little town, and aided by one of the most enigmatic and irresistible of Keegan's heroes, well, the story explodes from a chance event to the fantasy-scenario equivalent of world war three.

"Tall, dark and smoldering" is Rogan Dahl, who's been a prince, a hostage, a soldier, a cavalry colonel. "Drop dead gorgeous" is Tristan Carlin, who's been a peasant, a warrior, a scribe, and a wedlocked husband. Life is a rocky road for each of these guys; put them together, and you get a inferno waiting to go up --

And Keegan is going to make you wait! Everything you can imagine (and a bunch of plot twists you absolutely can't!) gets between these two guys, and when they finally get it together it's as exhausting for the reader as for the characters. And Mel Keegan manages to do this while staying on "this side of the line" that divides Legitimate Fiction from erotica. Harbendane will stand your hair on end -- at the same time as being absolutely legit.

The backstory is huge. It spans centuries of history and generations of the Halloran family. The Hallorans are Rogan's adoptive clan. He was sent to them as a hostage when he was a small child (in the traditional sense of the word "hostage," which meant the guarantee of someone's good behaviour). The Hallorans are the clan at the head of the great kingdom of Harbendane -- and as the story opens, Harbendane is up for grabs. They're beleaguered, surrounded by enemies on three sides, with nowhere to run and no one to turn to. They're fighting at capacity in the north, and when the ambitious, murderous chief from the next neighboring "superpower" in this land takes them on, they're hanging by a thread. The freedom of a whole people depends on tactics, strategy, and the willingness to take outrageous risks.

And that's the backstory, the scenario, not the plot! Against this monster backdrop, Mel Keegan's story is about individuals, how their lives are being twisted by duty, how their dreams and desires are being wrenched away, how they're still struggling to make something of themselves, how they all interact as they play their parts in a strategy that just might keep Harbendane out of the hands of its enemies.

I can't say much about the details of those personal stories, because I'm in plot spoilers instantly, and most readers absolutely hate to be told, "Tristan's real problem is..." and "Rogan's plan is..." I can tell you that the book is written with a great lyricism, imagery that comes to life, characters you're going to love, others you're going to hate. Obviously I adored Rogan and Tristan. (It's huge fun "casting the parts" as if Harbendane were a movie. I play this game with almost every book I read. Adds to the fun.) But I also loved Damiel and Morgan Halloran, which is a bit unusual for me. I don't usually "identify" very strongly with the female characters. These two are just amazing -- particularly Morgan ... the character blew me away.

The book is thrilling in many places, intriguing in others ... and keep the Kleekex handy, because there's a couple of places where you might need them. Fair warning: one of the major characters gets killed. (NOT Rogan or Tristan; but MK will make you care a lot about most of these characters, and one of them at least doesn't make it through to the end.)

Does the book have a downside? If it does, I didn't find it. The cover art is the best DreamCraft has ever done. Jade must have been absolutely inspired. (You get used to digital "art" ... but this is a painting, the way books used to have real artwork covers years ago. You feel kind of spoiled at the luxury.) The production values are very high throughout, and CreateSpace does a fantastic job with the paperbacks.

You can get it from in paperback. The Kindle version should be available by the weekend (it's been stuck in "publishing" for days now, and an email was just sent to technical support to get it "unstuck"). You can order the Mobipocket format for your Kindle, smartphone, Blackberry, Palm Pilot, and many other devices. It's available as a PDF for your iLiad, Palm, PC and Mac. And if you're reading on an iPhone, get the Kindle for iPhone applet. A hardcover version is being planned, and will be available from Lulu -- it'll make a great Chrissy pressie when the silly season comes back around.

Highly recommended. AG's rating: 5 out of 5 stars, and a gold sticker added on for excellence of presentation: the cover is amazing.

PC/Mac ebook:
 Add to Cart $9.95 -- and identical in every way to the paperback.298pp. (Permissions: no editing, printing, text or image copy/paste.)

Screenreader ebook:
 Add to Cart US$9.95 -- properly formatted, complete with cover art and map; over 430pp.(Permissions: no editing, printing, text or image copy/paste.)