This article is sponsored by Tor Books. All views expressed in the article reflect those of the writer.
Coined by academic Joseph Campbell and made more famous by George Lucas’ use of the template in Star Wars: A New Hope, The Hero’s Journey is a classic structure for fantasy stories. The Hero’s Journey is comprised of a hero who receives a call to adventure, has a mentor to guide them, goes on a journey to defeat their nemesis, experiences trials and tribulations, and has a dark moment of the soul before the climax where they grow as a character.
The “Chosen One” trope is a common variation on the Hero’s Journey. You know the one: someone has been fated to defeat the Dark Lord or restore balance to the Four Nations? It works, so it continues to be used in popular fiction. Unfortunately, the redundancy of the Chosen One myth is making some fantasy feel a bit tired, especially when authors use a protagonist’s prophesied status to make them a little too perfect, exhibiting Mary Sue-like tendencies.
Enter new book Fate of the Fallen, the first book in a new series from Kel Kade. This is still a fantasy book — magic and mayhem, a journey across lands, a protagonist who gains friends and allies as he journeys. There’s just one major change here: As soon as the Chosen One is set up, he’s killed off, and the story belongs to his friend Aaslo, who is sure he isn’t suited to the task.
Our reluctant hero is a quiet guy who just wants to tend the forests in peace. In Aldrea, specifically the village of Goldenwood, being a forester is a valued job. Years of cutting down too many trees for building materials has led to this essential job becoming the duty of a select few. This mostly solitary position makes Aaslo the antithesis of a people-person, except when it comes to his best friend and brother-in-arms Mathias, whose charm balances out Aaslo’s personality. When his best friend and prophesied Chosen One is killed, Aaslo takes up the mantle — mostly because nobody else will. He’s not good ad addressing superiors, falls short on social niceties, and has more anxiety facing an open field than a sword-wielding opponent.
Aaslo is an enjoyable lead because he’s just a smidge of curmudgeon, loathe to leave the familiar behind in order to fulfill Mathias’ quest. He gains allies much to his own chagrin. Some careless wording on his part when he negotiates the lives of two street hooligans leads to them being “his men” and inadvertently getting a bar wench fired gives him a mouthy witch to follow him around. He’d much rather be alone, but even in those moments, he’s hounded by his guilt — as well as the disembodied voice of his murdered friend, who wastes no time in picking on him.
Teza, magic academy dropout no longer allowed to use magic, pits her stubborn attitude against Aaslo’s introverted self in a number of scenes that benefit from their interaction. Teza proves a valuable companion, but that doesn’t mean Aaslo will be happy about her presence all the time.
On the flip side of this adventure, there are several chapters focusing on the gods, depicted as a familiar representation of the Greek Pantheon. The gods play with the circumstances going on with the Chosen One prophecy as part of a game — certain gods want to end the world and get power from all those claimed souls. Privy to the machinations of the gods is Myropa, a reaper, who puts a lot of these otherworldly scenes in a more human perspective.
Aaslo’s “forester wisdom” is quotable. “Today’s sapling is tomorrow’s Mother tree,” he tells someone in a retort. When arriving on someone’s doorstep, he’ll say the forester greeting “I bring shade in my heart.” Nobody understands what he’s talking about, but he stays true to his forester ways whenever possible, trying to not let the gravity of his quest turn him cruel. The heart of this story is Aaslo. He may not think he’s suited to the task at hand, but his courage to fight in spite of that is what endears him to the reader.
A hero might rely on their trusty steed, but Aaslo got a bad deal and his horse, Dolt, is a complete moron. The nonsensical things the horse does to make Aaslo’s journey more difficult are little highlights of amusement that lighten the tone. One might also suspect there’s more to this horse than meets the eye, but, for now, expect Aaslo’s days to be that much harder because he has a horse that will arbitrarily decide to make three lefts instead of a right.
The worldbuilding is simple enough to grasp right away without having to slog through paragraphs of exposition. In fact, the whole book is written in an accessible fashion — the chapters are easy page turners, and talking scenes can often be joined by intense passages of brutal action. Add to that the likeable characters and world-ending odds — you’ve got a recipe for a highly enjoyable fantasy ride.
Kel Kade does a masterful job of subverting our expectations of how a Hero’s Journey should play out — while simultaneously fulfilling the key components of the journey in her storytelling. Aaslo may not be the Chosen One, but he’s the reluctant hero, pushed forward on a quest. He has a mentor figure, briefly, in the form of the high sorceress. He gains allies and he faces an evil, world ending foe. But his journey does not follow the usual path. His mentor, though she sends him on his journey, is not as helpful as she could be. His allies are accidental. His trusty steed is a few straws short of a haybale. His enemy is not a singular foe, but a combination of a rival army and the manipulative gods.
Fate of the Fallen is a journey worth stepping into, an epic story that doesn’t mind speaking to its reader in a casual manner. It’s a fantasy tale that answers the question “What if the real hero is not around to save the day?” and decides to strike a positive tone. This is a story that tells the reader: even though you are not the hero in the prophecy and don’t have special powers, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. One might not expect to be inspired by a fantasy story, but here it is — complete with an idiot horse, a couple of thieving sidekicks, and a witch with a ‘tude.
Fate of the Fallen is currently available from Tor Books.