Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is one of my very favourite John Carpenter movies. I’d probably rank it slightly higher than Halloween (don’t @ me), mainly because I’m an action film fan. Made on a low budget, AoP13 packed a lot of thrills and set-pieces in its lean running time. It was set in a confined space and over a few hours. I loved the format and tightness of the screenplay (a feature of much of Carpenter’s early work), that still gave time for some decent character scenes.
All of which brings me to the book I’m reviewing here. Red Harvest Moon is the opening volume of a debut epic fantasy series, The Wandering Knife, by author Miles Hurt. Heavily influenced by Japanese folklore, Hurt’s main character is Ren. He was once a Loyal Knife, swearing allegience to king and country, until a rash decision almost cost him his life, but which instead resulted in his exile. He became The Wandering Knife, travelling the length and breadth of the land, with his companion and friend Crimp, robbing people and villages to keep his head above water. He’s not about making friends; he’s more about staying alive.
The book begins with the pair of brigands coming up on two more men who they see as easy prey. It turns out that the men have barely survived an attack by a race of human-like creatures called ghuls. These monsters hail from far-off Urizan and are sworn enemies of the people of Soren. They have been quiet for a long time, but are now deep into Ren’s territory and are terrorising innocent villages. They are led by Krond, whose blood is a mix of human and ghul, and is practically unstoppable. Ren and Crimp eventually aid the two men in fighting off Krond and his ghuls, but one of the men is killed. The survivor, Drunn, pleads with Ren and Crimp to help him warn the villagers of Puttle that death is on its way. Krond is left maimed after Ren’s innate ability with the sword takes an eye–he swears revenge on our Wandering Knife.
All this happens in the first couple of chapters, and makes the remaining narrative compelling action-packed. Any fan of epic fantasy will be familiar with how the first book of any series will take its time to introduce characters, settings, and conflicts. Often there are chapters where nothing much happens at all; just a lot of travelling and talking, mainly. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this: my favourite fantasy series of all time, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, devotes whole sections of its ten volumes to characters walking and telling each other stories. But it’s a breath of fresh air that Miles Hurt doesn’t go down this route just yet. His judicious use of brief flashbacks and character dynamics more than set the scene in Red Harvest Moon.
Basically what we have here is a siege novel, which is what reminded me of Carpenter’s movie. The action takes plain primarily in Puttle and its surroundings, with Ren, Crimp, and Drunn trying to convince the villagers and its reeve that their lives are in danger if they don’t up sticks and desert their homes. Not everyone wants to leave: it’s Harvest time and the village are preparing a feast, and some don’t trust Ren and Crimp (Drunn has history with the village, so his support is also untrustworthy). The men have a job on their hands to keep themselves and the villagers alive. Ren and Crimp also debate whether or not they should cut and run. For a fantasy novel, the stakes are lowkey, concentrated as they are on the village and the people that live there. Over the course of this book, Miles Hurt introduces us to characters that, should they survive their encounter with evil, open up the land of Soren and beyond for future novels in the series.
The nomadic hero and his companions are features of Japanese folklore, bringing to mind the legends of the samurai. Here we have not seven, but three “samurai”. I look forward to seeing this team expand as the series goes on. Some will live; others won’t. It’s the nature of the Great Circle, as Ren learns from his father: “Though you are a Wandering Knife, you still walk within the Great Circle. Find purpose in that.” Purpose, indeed.
Bottom line: this is a great start to what I think will be a series to look out for, and Miles Hurt is definitely an author to follow.