Greatshadow, the first book of The Dragon Apocalypse by James Maxey, reminds me in so may ways of the TSR quest-driven novels I cut my fantasy teeth on so many years ago. More specifically, it reminds of Forgotten Realms adventures by the likes of R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, Troy Denning, and Douglas Niles. Before anybody takes that the wrong way, let me assure you that's absolutely not a criticism or a complaint - I have fond memories of those adventures, and Maxey rekindled that same kind of wide-eyed enjoyment.
The writing is fresh, the characters intriguing, the action frantic, and the story line deeper than you might originally suspect. I must admit, it took a while to get used to having a ghost narrate the novel, but there's purpose to Stagger's narrative role that goes far beyond mere novelty. He's a coward and a scoundrel, a greedy, drunken adventurer with questionable ethics, but one who is loyal and sincere where it counts. I definitely warmed up to him over the course of the novel, and I quite liked the way Maxey gave his story closure towards the end.
Infidel, his magically endowed, super powered partner in crime seemed a little thin at first. She reminded me too much of the characters at the heart of the Runelords saga, a series where the novelty wore thin long before the final pages of the first book. Fortunately, Maxey has an entertaining backstory for her that is slowly unveiled over the course of the novel, slowly adding layers of humanity to her impervious exterior. Of course, it helps that she's entirely aware of her role as a sex-object within the genre, something she takes great joy in subverting. There's a scene where Infidel explains to Aurora, high priestess and frost giantess extraordinaire, just how deep her superhuman strength runs, and why she could never doom a man to the throes of orgasm, that will leave you laughing and crossing your legs at the same time.
Where Maxey breaks away from the style of those Forgotten Realms adventures of 20+ years ago and cements his place alongside his genre contemporaries is in his sheer unpredictability. This is one of those novels where nobody is safe, where good and evil are not absolutes, and where truth and lies are simply a matter of perspective. For such a small band of adventurers, a lot of main characters die along the way, and not all of them in the grand, heroic fashion you might expect. There's an element of realism here - or, as much as there can be within a swords & sorcery tale - that acknowledges the fact that things don't always work out simply because we want them to.
One final note on this book, I thoroughly enjoyed Maxey's take on religion. The Church of the Book is an interesting concept, both a satiric parody of organized religion and an almost logical mythological construct. The idea of a Book that contains the complete story of the universe, but which cannot be read except by the arrival of long-anticipated Omega Reader, is brilliant in its absurdity. Similarly, the duelling magics of Father Ver and the Deceiver is both ridiculous and inspired, with the magical outcome of their respective 'truths' and 'lies' dependant solely upon the belief of those around them.
It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of enjoying a good, old-fashioned, straight-up quest adventure, complete with magical artifacts, inhuman races, and truly epic dragons. He amused me, entertained me, and amazed me on several occasions. Much to Maxey's credit, he maintained both my interest and my smiles the whole way through, more than ensuring I'll be back to discover what happens with Hush.