Recently I was wandering through a used bookstore and came across an older novel by one of my favorite Star Wars authors, Michael A. Stackpole. Once a Hero was published in 1994, a few years before he was writing the X-wing series. It was his first (published) stand-alone fantasy novel.
A couple of things to mention about the cover. First of all, the art is …you know, I’m not quite sure what word I’m looking for. Let’s just say that if I judged this book by the cover, I never would have bought it. The scene is not really even relevant to the story. Like the cover designer thought, “Let’s see, it’s a fantasy novel…so we need…a hot elf, a sword, and a guy on a horse. Perfect!”
The blurb on the back cover is equally strange.
It seems like a normal summary…except the events described are not even hinted at until page 390 in a 513-page book. I spent a good chunk of the book convinced it was a publishing error, because what I was reading did not resemble the blurb.
But the contents of the book were worth more than the $2.50 I paid for it (Detour: I’m definitely in favor of supporting authors with sales–I bought all Stackpole’s X-wing books new–but Amazon currently has Once a Hero paperback listed for $24.30. So you might want to try the Kindle version for $4.99…or better yet you can just go direct to the source and buy it in paperback or epub format at very reasonable prices)
Stackpole has a distinctive voice as an author; I could tell I was reading one of his books. One of my favorite things about his writing is that his characters frequently use the structure “I’d not…” instead of “I wouldn’t…” I could see similarities between Neal Elfward, the protagonist of this book, and Corran Horn of his X-wing books. But he also introduces another neat linguistic quirk for Neal, who often starts sentences with “I’m thinking…” For example, from Chapter 6 (speaking of his Dreel companion Shijef):
“Why would you want a Dreel as a slave?”
“I’m thinking you have a point….We had a contest, he and I, and he lost, so he became my slave.”
“Better than the other way around.”
I smiled. “I’m thinking I’d not have been a slave. Dinner, more likely.”
Stackpole writes well in both 1st and 3rd person, and he does both in this book, switching between 1st person for Neal and 3rd person for Genevera, a female elf living 500 years later. I enjoyed the dual perspective; it gave a fuller picture of both the past and present, and both characters were interesting and substantial enough for it to work.
Subtle, thorough world-building is a highlight of this novel. There is even a nice map by Liz Danforth, a frequent collaborator of Stackpole. This may be due in part to the story’s roots: it apparently began as a D&D campaign. On Stackpole’s website, we find this reader comment:
Hi Mike, I was wondering if you have written and published anything more on Nuris Elfward who you wrote about in the “Zombies” module for ad&d back in ’87. I have recently introduced my daughters and their friends to ad&d gaming and ran this module. Love your work. Best regards, Jim.
Jim, I never did anything else with Nuris per se, but that background and all got reworked into my novel Once a Hero.
If you take a look at the original module, it’s pretty interesting to see where certain story elements originated: the Netherese/Reithrese, Nuris/Neal’s reawakening, the sword Cleaveheart, and the creepy architecture of the villain’s lair.
Once a Hero was a fairly long read, as it is pretty detailed, and frequently jumps back and forth between past and present. But there are some really great characters, and a great mix of action, humor, and romance. And it is a little cleverer than the standard hero’s journey. If you’re looking for a stand-alone high fantasy, this is definitely one I’d recommend.
Tl;dr ⅘ stars Elaborate twist on hero fantasy; perfect for Stackpole fans or D&D players