The Dread Hammer is the first fantasy book by Trey Sheils, who has written more books as science fiction writer Linda Nagata. Linda Nagata has won the Locus Award for Best Science First Novel for The Bohr Maker and the Nebula Award for Best Novella for Goddesses.
When Ketty’s father decides she is to marry an old man who has been married twice already, she runs away and desperately prays to the Dread Hammer for help when these two men pursue her. Instead of being rescued by the Dread Hammer, she is rescued by Smoke, a handsome young man who often hears prayers. Smoke is one of the Bidden, a descendant of the spirit Koráy who left her home to aid an oppressed people when she heard their pleas to the Dread Hammer. Yet Smoke is different from the other Bidden and is also trying to escape his past.
While Smoke often responds to the cries for help he hears, he’s never felt drawn to any of them as he does Ketty. Ketty is rather attractive, and Smoke almost immediately decides she must be his wife. At first, Ketty is resistant to this idea, but she does find Smoke rather alluring and soon gives in. The two retire to Smoke’s cottage, where they live together rather happily and even have a child together, a rarity for one of the Bidden. However, when Smoke becomes careless about remaining in hiding out of concern for Ketty, he has no choice but to return to the past he thought he had finally escaped – at least, if he values the well-being of his new family.
The Dread Hammer is a fairly short, quick read and is a somewhat entertaining book. Although it is a good story, I do think it’s a rare instance of a fantasy book that would have benefited from having more length. There’s a lot packed into it with a world full of legends, peoples in conflict with each other, a dysfunctional family, a love story, and a lot of background on the Bidden and Smoke himself. Yet it flits so much between all these different parts that it feels somewhat rushed. While there is some depth to it in the natures of the various characters and the fact that neither side in the war seems entirely pure of heart, it ends up feeling shallow because there is no time to get to know the characters or really become immersed in it.
The highlight of this book as far as I was concerned were the myths and legends and how they influenced Smoke’s family. As the story progresses, much of the background is filled in by one of Smoke’s sisters. These vital pieces of information and her insights add a lot to the story even though they are short and spread out. It’s through her that we learn of how Koráy was bidden to come to the aid of what would become the Koráyos people when she heard their prayers to the Dread Hammer. The story is also divided between Smoke and the rest of his family in the beginning when they separated. These sections supplied what it means to be direct ancestors of Koráy who have some magic because of this – and the fact that Smoke is still both more and less than they are somehow. It also filled in more of the continuing conflict between the Koráyos and the Fitáwan people, whom Koráy had come to protect them from in the first place.
Smoke’s family and their life in the Puzzle Lands was a lot more compelling than Smoke’s life. It’s not that he’s not an interesting character in his own right, because he is. He has this carefree, playful side when he’s around Ketty, but Smoke has a dark side that makes it hard to be completely sympathetic toward him. He is a killer who has killed women and children in the past, although he hates to. Yet he doesn’t have great respect for human life and will kill without a second thought if he thinks it’s necessary, especially when it comes to protecting himself and his family. That’s not to say he’ll only take a life when faced with an immediate threat, though – he’ll kill someone just for knowing of his existence so they can’t let others know. For all that, he doesn’t quite seem cold-blooded, though, as he’s more practical than cruel and doesn’t seem to enjoy killing as long as he doesn’t have a personal cause. He also obviously loves Ketty and his daughter, although I was a bit confounded by how quickly he decided he was in love with Ketty. He was obviously intrigued by her courage, and perhaps he felt her a kindred spirit since she was also trying to unburden herself from the plans her family had for her. I was more puzzled by Ketty’s response to Smoke’s sudden affections. While she was initially hesitant to become the wife of a man who appeared out of nowhere and offered to kill her father and would-be husband, it wasn’t long before she changed her mind and went home with Smoke. She didn’t have a lot of good options if she didn’t want to go home, but they had just met and Smoke did seem a bit like a sinister character (even if one that had a bit of charm and was supposed to be rather handsome).
Once Smoke was reunited with his family, it got a lot more interesting, though. Smoke’s father despises him and is a jealous, cruel, and hardhearted individual. Despite his murderous tendencies, Smoke never comes across as outright evil, but his father certainly does – and much of the darker side of Smoke can be attributed to his father. Smoke also seems to have a greater capacity to truly care for people than his father does. In contrast, Smoke’s twin sisters (who are beloved by their father) love him and raised him due to the death of their mother. There’s some major drama with Smoke’s father manipulating him and one of Smoke’s sisters falling in love with a man Smoke has a rather unpleasant history with. Through it all, the only one who remains measured is Tayval, the twin who never speaks yet has been gifted with great power and insight.
While the story is entertaining, I do think the writing could have been a bit stronger. The dialogue between Ketty and Smoke was sometimes a bit abrupt and clunky, even though there was quite a bit of it that was also full of playful affection that rang true. Other than the sections belonging to Smoke’s sister, which had a bit more poetic flair and were some of my favorite parts, the sentences were very short and simple. In some cases, this works, but in this case I was sometimes thinking about this more than the story. There was also the occasional cheesiness of referring to the vagina as the “sacred gate” anytime it was referenced, which was a very distracting phrase.
All in all, The Dread Hammer is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours since it’s a good story and the unraveling of Smoke’s origins makes for an intriguing mysterious element. Since it is very short for the amount that happens in it, though, it seems rushed. It could have been a much better book if only some time had been spent really getting to know the characters, and if the writing, particularly the dialogue, was a little more complex or inventive. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s also not one that would have me clamoring to read the sequel were there ever to be one.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the author.