Book Review: The Delve (A Novel of The Time Before) – Dan Fitzgerald

Hello!

Today I am delighted to be reviewing an ARC of The Delve by Dan Fitzgerald which will be out in the wild on the 1st February. The Delve is the first in a trio of linked standalones in The Time Before, which is set 2,000 years before the Maer Cycle trilogy and the Weirdwater Confluence duology but can be read independently.

Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.

Book Summary:

The sword wants what it wants.

The Deepfold mine has gone dark on the eve of war. Without its supply of brightstone, the Maer’s technological advantage over the humans will evaporate. A rising knight named Yglind has earned his Forever Blade and been sent on a quest to uncover the cause of the blackout. Joined by his trusted squire Ardo and a prickly mage named Aene, Yglind hopes to cement his legacy and the Maer’s chance at victory in the coming war.

Inside the Deepfold, they are plunged into a world of bloodshed and chaos. Unknown foes have slaughtered many of the miners, and a gruesome dragon stalks the dark tunnels. While taking refuge in the mine’s impregnable keep, Yglind and Ardo seek solace in each other’s arms and the courage to face the cruel forces arrayed against them.

With their civilization hanging in the balance, they strike out against the invaders as their quest hurtles toward its bloody end.

***

Author’s note: this book contains explicit, consensual sex scenes, violence, gore, and death, and is not intended for readers under the age of eighteen.

The Review:

Do you ever get the feeling that an author has been waiting to write a specific book? Or that a book is the natural outcome of those that have come before? Well, that is the feeling that I got while reading The Delve – which felt a little like the lovechild of the Weirdwater duology, especially The Isle of a Thousand Worlds and Fitzgerald’s debut trilogy the Maer Cycle. Fitting considering this new book shares the world, but it felt like something more, as though all those paths and all that writing had come together.

ALSO JUST LOOK AT THAT COVER!!!

     Now, it should be noted that this is a standalone novel (the first in a trio of standalones), so you don’t need to be fully versed in the wider world of Fitzgerald’s writing to be pulled into the world and the story. For those, like me, who have read the previous words, there were connections to the other works that had me smiling whenever I spotted them. Yet at the same time, he has managed to create a world that has some points of familiarity, but also feels unique and new, like stepping over the threshold into an undiscovered part of the world – which is fitting considering that The Delve is set 2,000 years before the events of the previous books, and I loved that there was the weight of history and the future still to come in this story and how the potential for that future was even built into how the Maer and Timon live their lives and in the case of the former, fight the war.

    And it is in the worldbuilding that I really felt this book shone. Now, I must admit that I am a little biased towards the fact that the core of the story is a dungeon delve and seeing the influence of TTRPG games in the process of the exploration, the use of resources, the traps was fantastic and was everything that I wanted. Also, the fact that they use dice to essentially do auguries of their path had the biggest grin on my face – this book is a feast for anyone with that kind of leaning and Fitzgerald has done an excellent job of making it both subtle and accessible for people who are not coming from that background. It’s an adventure romp, wrapped up with real stakes and so much more.

The dice needed more than just her energy to work properly, but Yglind didn’t have to know that. As much as he derided the ritual, he gave her words more credence with the dice to back her up, which was half the battle anyway.

The magic systems were equally intriguing and fascinating, and it was a curious blend of soft and semi-hard (no pun intended), philosophy and technology. That would have been enough, but Fitzgerald utilises them in such a way that they are another layer to the cultural, social and economic aspects of the worldbuilding. The Delve would not have occurred without the threat to the material needed for the Maers’ magic, while the mining wouldn’t happen or at least not in the same way without the Timons’ metal magic combined with technology, and neither would have been in as much peril without the unknown force of the humans magic. And more than that, we saw the Maer and Timon connecting over their different magic – and I loved seeing Aene and Skiti being so fascinated with each other’s ability and equipment.

“It’s so beautiful.” Aene reached out her fingers, not to touch the patterns but to feel the energy of the Omni, like a weak static field surrounding a core of deeper power. She knew the Timon were masters of metal, but she had always imagined weapons and clever tools, not performance art.

I also appreciated the limitations that were built in, such Aene being dependent on the power stored in chips to be able to keep using spells and being limited to those that were prepared on her device; and that it used energy to cast too. While the Timon had such a magnificent tool at that their disposal, that had made so much possible from communication across an entire mine, to a malleable changeable tool, but it wasn’t enough to protect their home and people. Magic is fantastic, but it’s even better when it is developed like this, an integral part of the world and cultures, but not a fix-all and Fitzgerald nailed that element perfectly.

Returning to the economic and cultural aspect. This book was fairly narrow in terms of the scope of the setting – most of it occurring within the confines of the mine – and yet the world felt so expansive, and a lot of it is down to those other aspects. The fact that multiple mines were under attack, that war was occurring and borders between the Maer and Humans were shifting, moving pieces within moving pieces, created a breadth beyond what we got to witness, but which played a direct and integral part to the events that we were witnessing with the stakes being that those events in turn were influencing those outside aspects. It was such an organic way of doing the worldbuilding, and adding more layers to the history and world, for those already familiar with Fitzgerald’s world and really pulling in new readers.

Of course, I can’t finish a discussion of the worldbuilding – especially for a dungeon delve – without talking about the critters that inhabit the mine. The author has clearly had a lot of fun creating these beasties, and again we see that organic integration into the world and how the characters live there – from the defences against the Brightworms, to knowing which tunnels in the mine the waadrech (and anyone who is a fan of Dragons is going to love this one) wouldn’t be able to fit through. There was also that classic dungeon feel, of the threat of the natural predators being exacerbated by events and even by the heroes themselves, and the lessons to be learned about sometimes you don’t need to fight everything that you face.

“Nice dragon,” Yglind whispered, taking a tentative step forward. The waadrech watched him intently, then blinked again and went in for another bite. Yglind took two more steps, and the creature continued its meal.

Another aspect where The Delve really shone was the characters. Fitzgerald has always been fantastic at characterisation at that remains true here, particularly with our three main characters – Yglind, Ardo and Aene with whom we spend the most time. Here again we get a hint of the classic dungeon party, from their roles in thr group, to the bickering and disagreement (and that one person who rushes in and causes havoc), but these characters are more than that.

     Now, I will admit it did take me a wee while to warm up to Yglind, because while he had his quieter, softer moments especially around Ardo, he was a little brash and had me wanting to shake him a couple of times, especially in the first third of the book. However, in the end he is the character that stole the show for me,  because he learns and develops so much, and Yglind is where we really see the impact of the events in the mines and how an established relationship can shape and change a character. Technically he is our ‘hero’ as the one who leads The Delve, and the one who will earn the most if successful, and yet it feels as though he turns the furthest from ‘hero’ in the course of the book – especially the latter part during the fallout – than the others, and not in a negative way. It was an enriching and fulfilling journey to where he ended up, and it felt like it came about so naturally through the events and through the relationship with the others.

Aene was my favourite at the start. I have a weakness for casters, and she refused to take any of Yglind’s nonsense (as much as the situation allowed) and I was cheering on. I would loved to have seen more about her training and how she came to be paired with the others, but I loved her relationship with them, and how she was the one of all of them, who forged the bonds with the Timon (with a shared interest in magic) and the humans (with her attraction to Feddar and the promises made). Without Aene, The Delve would have ended so very differently.

If Aene and Yglind are the kindling and fire in different ways, then Ardo was the fuel and the fire-tender, keeping them both supported and grounded and pushing them forward in his own way. I felt like we didn’t get to know him quite as much as the others, and yet there was still an emotional connection – and in many ways he felt like the most ‘accessible’ of the three. He cast a different light on the other two, and I loved him, because in his understated way, he was the glue that held the group together and also just by being who he was, he ended up shaping so much more towards the end of the book.

I wanted to spend more time with the Timon, but I really liked both Skiti and Laanda – especially when they were together, and it is because of the two of them that we become so invested in the fate of the mine and the Timon. Also Laanda is fascinating as a character because of the dichotomy between her as a person, and her role as a Queen, and how she reconciles though two aspects and how that in turn influences those around her and the future of her people.

Now confession time. I have only in the last year or so really warmed up to romance in my stories (although give me a silly romantic film and I will roll my eyes so hard they threaten to escape – aside from the Holiday of course), and when it comes to more explicit content I am hit or miss at best as it is something that holds zero interest for me. Fitzgerald though had already won me over with his skills in both romance and the spicier side with the Weirdwater duology, and I knew entering this book, that I would be in safe hands and that I would be invested in the side of the book that previously wouldn’t have appealed to me. The main reason – aside from the fact that Fitzgerald is a fantastic writer – is that neither are there ‘just because’ or to add spice to the mix, after all there is more than enough action and excitement from The Delve itself.

    No, what entices me in and keeps me fully invested is the emotional weight of the relationships, the softness (no matter how a character may try and hide it) and bond that is exposed through those moments, the trust that is so explicit in those moments. These are not moments to pay lip service, but part of a living, evolving relationship between the characters – and that is why it works so well.

“Gods, I love you, Ardo. I don’t say it enough, but it’s true.”

Ardo craned his head around, looking into Yglind’s soft eyes. “I love you from now to the Time to Come.”

What I especially enjoyed in The Delve is that we got such a variety of relationships and ways of expressing that affection and attraction, even within a tale that occurred over a relatively short time period (for the main part at least); and it was interesting to see the separate threads of instant (and almost forbidden) attraction, an established relationship that still managed to become something that meant more, and a relationship with boundaries set by position and choice and which had the deepest expression of trust. We see how danger and stress can pull people together, shift their needs and desires, and how peace can soften that, and again there is that connectivity between everything that is so evident throughout this entire book.

So yes, there is spice – quite a bit of it – but it is so integral to everything, and so grounded in emotional connection that even if you are like me, you will be caught up in it!

Outwith the worldbuilding and characters (and their myriad, complicated and compelling relationships), Fitzgerald writes captivating action, managing to capture both the essence of the flurried urgency and panic of unexpected combat, with planned combat falling apart with first contact with the enemy, to the longer-term schemes and wittling down of resources of tracking an enemy and moving into them when they have the position of stress. The stakes were evident and felt real all the way through, and there was a cost when things went wrong and mistakes were made that only added to that. The pacing matched the action, and there was a steadily building pace and the feeling of time running out in more way than one. This in turn was balanced with much needed quieter, character moments and time to reflect and plan, which were done so well that it maintained the momentum without taking the weight from those minutes.

The Delve was one of those books that I ended up devouring in a matter of hours, I was so enthralled with the story and the characters. It is a wonderful blend of so many elements, and Fitzgerald balanced it all to create a book that is a fantastic starting point if you are unfamiliar with the world, and a tasty addition to an already rich world if you are. That same blend of elements, from the classic dungeon dive to the romance and spice, fantastic worldbuilding and magic systems and everything else, mean that this book can and will appeal to so many different people. I loved it, and already want more – and all I can do is recommend this if you are wanting a book that will scratch that TTRPG itch and come with so much more!

**

If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.

Rowena

One thought on “Book Review: The Delve (A Novel of The Time Before) – Dan Fitzgerald

  1. Pingback: Not The Friday Five: The Boring Title Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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