The First Rule by Steven William Hannah

The First Rule by Steven William Hannah


The First Rule is the first entry in Steven William Hannah’s new series The Blind Age. This story blends conventional fantasy elements with new twists on familiar tropes with a laser-focused story that lets readers know exactly what they’re in for.

In this foundational volume, readers are introduced to main character Venalia, a brand-spankin’-new mint condition Priestess in the land of Altheim. In this world, Priests and Priestesses are called to specific gods based on their personality and talents, and can take multiple career paths that make use of their particular magical abilities. Venalia serves the Mind’s Eye, a god of knowledge and secrets but has yet to choose a path in life. She has returned to her home village of Llantry to perform the funeral rites for the man who raised her, and encounters old grudges stemming from her childhood. If this wasn’t hard enough, a fleeing soldier named Temple arrives in town warning of the approach of the deadly entity known as the Choir, a relic of the old days when dragons tormented humanity. Venalia must decide whether to flee or stay out of duty, even though Temple’s visions tell of her going to certain death to fight the enemy.

The story here is refreshingly non-epic, and I mean that in the classical sense. The plot takes place over a relatively short period of time in a single defined location. This is a great choice for the first book in a series, since it allows readers to get comfortable with the basic aspects of the world without being overwhelmed by lore, as well as focus on the main characters. Here the world-building is built into the story, and the info-dumps are few and brief. The story is much more character-driven than many modern fantasy novels of this length. Sometimes this leads to a bit of navel-gazing and repetition of lines several times, but it’s not too bad. It is told in present tense, which might take some readers a bit of getting used to. However, I found it not much of a chore after a couple chapters. The cover is rather reminiscent of a comic book, but rest assured it’s not. This is in most respects a classic prose novel set firmly in the fantasy genre.

The characters in The First Rule are vivid and multi-faceted, and every character has an arc. Venalia’s establishing incident in her relationship to Llantry is an unfortunate but understandable act committed in childhood, and at the beginning of the story she’s not happy to be back. As someone who left the little hometown long ago and never went back, this was familiar ground for me. Her initial nemesis is a petulant, petty politician on a power trip (alliteration neither intended nor avoided), and the soldier Temple seems brave, but only thanks to his visions telling him he survives, and he’s quite willing to leave others behind when necessary. Even the main villain, which at first seems to be just a monster, develops into something woven into the world and its past. So we’re not quite at Joe Abercrombie levels of moral ambiguity, but the characters are multi-dimensional. The monster is made scarier in that it’s not something that just takes you and eats you but in fact, Pennywise-like, makes its victims want to go with it with a hypnotizing song. So while there’s a good amount of action, much of the conflict is within the mind. Good thing they have a Priestess of the Mind’s Eye. One character’s change is a bit sudden and convenient, but it’s not too jarring.

I’m not sure what the word count is, but it’s definitely not a doorstop. One can finish it in a weekend, so the pacing is brisk without feeling rushed. In fact, there’s one part where Venalia is tarrying at a location and Temple is begging her to hurry up so they can get back, and I felt the same sense of urgency, so that was quite well done.

The book also plays with the idea of irrevocable fate and visions, and I was slightly reminded of Dune, which raises the question of whether seeing the future locks one into it, and whether uncertainty is a valuable weapon in its own right. It also disrupts the default medieval fantasy setting with mention of airships (mentioned but not seen, meaning they’d better show up in later books!) and descriptions of magic in very scientific-sounding terms. The magic system is coherent, and utilizes familiar terms in new ways. Praying to a god is actually a traumatic act that results in momentary catatonia and vomiting, and performing magic physically drains the mind and body. Amusingly, it seems that the “restore mana” potion in this world is a really strong tiki cocktail, made of equal parts fruit juice and rum!

I really enjoyed this first book, and it follows the modern prescription of “stand-alone with series potential” very well. The story is wrapped up satisfyingly with several surprise twists along the way, and sets up the next books, whatever they end up being. It appears well-positioned for an episodic format, leaving the exact plot wide open but with an established world that can then focus on the story going forward. It seems particularly amenable to a kind of fantasy-mystery genre blend, which I’ve enjoyed in the past. The next book in the series is titled The Rain That Makes The River and should be out this year.


Steven William Hannah’s website:


Pairs well with: North Coast Brewing Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale

This winter has thankfully been mild, but its last gasp seems to be coming on cold. So it’s a great time to enjoy some thick, rich Abbey Ale. I first had Brother Thelonious years ago in a small brewpub whilst indulging in poutine and creme brulee after having recently been laid off, and I imagine I put on most of my current excess weight just on that day. So I was excited to find it again recently. This tribute to legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk is a sweet, strong dark ale with just enough bitterness to balance it out. It packs a hefty 9.4% ABV and 32 IBU, with a dark brown caramel color and little carbonation with a light head that dissipates quickly. It’s got a slightly tangy aroma that becomes a creamy, fruity and spicy flavor with a medium body. Slightly citrusy, then adds cherry, raisin, chocolate and clove on top of that. Just a hint of hops that lingers on the finish. I love this ale. It fills you up and makes you remember it long after. It ain’t cheap though, a 4x12oz pack was $20, so I wouldn’t call it a daily drinker. It’s a fine occasional indulgence though. The sweetness and high ABV might make it a good restoration potion for Venalia, so maybe the Priestess would appreciate this offering from the Abbey Brother, especially on a cold winter’s day.


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