Of Mages and Monsters, the first book of The Judgments Saga by Matthew Saddoris and Devin Novakovic, follows a group of adventurers who set aside their differences to travel across the lands of Tironde, explore mysterious dungeons, fight monsters, collect loot, and learn the histories of a vast world while searching for an answer that could determine the fate of the entire world. Sounds familiar? You've probably played a role-playing video game or a tabletop that reflect its essential themes. The book obviously pays homage to classic RPG's and Tolkien-esque medieval fantasy.
The party's members are diverse and take on generic roles: Krack is an idealistic druid seeking to experience the world beyond the woods; she has a tiger companion named Sleet; Faenor is an arrogant power-hungry mage; Vox is a young man on a journey of self-discovery; Aku is your typical paladin devoted to his goddess, Pravda. Together they travel across sun scorched deserts harboring long forgotten secrets and ancient battlegrounds.
The book opens up with Krack meeting the metalworker dwarf dealer named Gromlin, and from the first three chapters, it doesn't take long for the party to come together. They look like a fun bunch at first, yet it makes me wonder what motivated them to band together in the first place. They don't seem to have any personal stakes to their quests. The inciting incident is a dragon named Storm, where we see the party team up to take down the powerful beast, and we get our first glimpses of magic. The early section drags with dialogues carrying small talk, character introductions, and boring exposition. This scene leads to the introduction of the Gandalf-like wizard figure named Mithrin Aredan, who takes the party on quests for loot, including mysterious artifacts.
Thoughout the novel, the party explores a wide range of classic medieval fantasy dungeons and landscapes that readers would find easy to imagine, thanks to its simple descriptions as well as how the characters interact with the environments. Saddoris and Novakovic seem to have a sharp sense of their world's vast geography.
The adventures made me feel like I was playing one of those classic Playstation 1 role-playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons players would see that it's influenced by the classic tabletop game. They face a lot of surprising enemies along the way such as metallic scorpions, bandits, and lizard beasts. Like a lot of classic medieval fantasies, the places would make you question their histories. I get the sense that the magic in this world is always connected to either nature or the mystical spirit within. Some descriptions of magic aren't concrete but they're not static, such as this passage that shows the effect of Faenor's magic:
"Faenor saw that everyone else was still preoccupied with looking through their rooms. Staring back at the ring, he placed three fingers to his temple and whispered the words of power, letting the magic flow through him. The ring began to glow a low amber color before
Faenor and his eyes lit up with excitement. He quickly placed the ring on his finger and felt a power surge through him. Closing his eyes, he tried to trace the power as it flowed from the ring into his being. Traveling through his extremities and ending in his core, nestling itself in the depth of his powers and intertwining with his magic. It flowed slowly from his core and made his muscles feel stronger.”
We also see the druid tap into nature to draw magic, which I consider to be some of the novel's finest visuals. On the other hand, Mithrin seems to have a bigger agenda as he's searching for how magic would unlock powerful knowledge:
"These instruments of magic and science will reveal the secrets of their power. Give us a glimpse of their lives, and how they ruled this land thousands of years ago. I can finally get students, scholars, funding even! We will scour every inch of this facility, learning what we can.”
There's a dark twist in the middle of the novel that totally blew my expectations about where the novel is going, so you'll probably get hooked to reading on when you get to that part. The first-half of the book gives us a sense of how the whole party interacts, and we also get to know more about their past throughout their adventures. However, I didn't sense any strong motivations that drive them to explore dungeons, fight monsters, and loot. They're as generic as typical Runescape avatars ,and you'd notice how the archtypes are similar to The Lord of the Rings: Aku and Vox remind me of Legolas and Gimli, except that they seem to incite more tension between them.
While its party members are under-developed, the novel's strength lies on its lore and geography. The empire's background and Mithran's knowledge of the King are intriguing. With its vast scale, by the end of the novel, it seems that the party has only explored a tiny fraction of its vast world. The end isn't conclusive but it looks like the groundwork of the series has been laid, so if you're into classic RPG's and dungeon crawls, you'd probably find something fascinating in Of Mages and Monsters. '