Tim Stretton's The Dog of the North is, in many ways, a fantasy novel I wish I had written. It is the story of two men, Arren and Beauceron, and their struggle as individuals trying to carve out their own places in a world whose personal intrigues and political statecraft entangle and threaten to choke them. The book takes place in the world of Mondia whose geography and cultures are quite foreign to ours but which is described with such clarity and sympathy that it feels as comfortable and familiar as any story of Arthurian England or Medieval Germany.
This is a difficult book to talk about without spoilers, but I will do my best, because while the action moves quickly and the dialogue pulls the reader along, the story is intricate enough to lend itself to a close reading, savoring the minutiae of the many compelling mysteries which are told or implied. The two primary story lines revolve around Arren and Beauceron. The former, a young man growing up in a world he never quite understands. The latter, a man trying to punish the world for not being what he thought it should be. It is a story of individuals searching for moral justice, social equanimity, and individual contentment. More than anything, it is the story of transformation, growth, and corruption. Every single person in The Dog of North has a vision of how the world should be, and how they should fit into that world. The book chronicles their ploys to make that happen, focusing most intimately on Arren and Beauceron.
It is, in those respects, very like much like the type of fiction I like to write. Unfortunately for me and fortunately for the reader, Stretton is able to pull of several things I have never been able to when crafting my own fantasy. His world of Mondia is at least as well if not better developed than any fantasy world I ever created, but rather than setting his story within the world, Stretton manages to use to the story to deliver the world. No lengthy, digressionary passages describe the land, the politics, the religion . . . But Mondia is vivid in my mind, because its richness is conveyed through crackling prose that integrates description and context deftly with action and character.
Likewise, Stretton's characters, while not unidimensional, are clearly understood by readers the moment they walk on stage. First impressions, so important in life, are difficult to communicate in fantasy fiction, where so often personality and psychology are lost in the trappings and flourishes of a far away place. In The Dog North, personality and psychology are readily apparent through the dialogue and behaviour of the individuals.
In short, The Dog of the North not just a good fantasy book. It's just a good book. Just the kind of fantasy that I've never been able to pull off. Good there's more Stretton to read and more on the way!