The Black Crown Review

Review: The Black Crown by John A. Douglas

The Black Crown is a compelling epic fantasy featuring a ghoulish sorcerer, vengeful dragons, found family, and orcs. This first book in the Age of Adventures series is bursting with intrigue and adventure.

Here at the Periapsis Press blog, we only post reviews of works we recommend, so you already know I enjoyed The Black Crown. I encourage you to check it out!

Disclaimer: We received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of review. This in no way influences our opinions. (You can request a review here.)

This review first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of ANIVIL: The Iron Age Magazine (Issue 2). It contains minor spoilers.

The Black Crown Publisher Description:

It is the dying days of the Age of Adventures and the Orc Wars have ended.

The Crown Pantheon, authoritarian rulers of Allspire, slaughtered the marauding Orcs by the tens of thousands and returned peace to the continent of Evergrad. But among the many half-orc bastards left in the wake of the war, one was Prince Ragoth Brightsorn, son of the notorious Warlord Thorgoth and Seranna, Queen of Namaria, the sole human-ruled kingdom.

After seventeen years of isolation, Ragoth is cruelly forced out of his life of luxurious comfort and into exile on the eve of his royal Crowning before he can receive his gilded mark, the magic sigil that proves his royal birth. Unable to prove who he is or return home, he embarks on a quest to reach his father’s tribe, the Sunderfang, in the lawless wilds of Dreadmour.

But his venture is not taken alone. He earns the company of Cortland Lowhelm, a pugilistic human farmboy hellbent on finding a legend to fill, and Denith, a compassionate, if helpless, elvish goodwill worker. To ensure safe passage, they acquire the services of Val’Mora, a world-weary veteran adventurer down on her luck. Together, they cross the kingdoms of the Crown Pantheon with nefarious forces seemingly at every step.

The Black Crown is a coming-of-age epic fantasy packed to the brim with action & adventure, political intrigue, found family, vengeful dragons, dark abominations, and, most of all….ORCS!

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Review:

Adventure

Epic fantasy has a reputation for straying off into the weeds of world building to the detriment of plot. The Black Crown does not suffer from this flaw. Douglas’s style is much more reminiscent of Jim Butcher’s The Codex Alera series, with its fast-paced drive and sometimes brutal treatment of characters in action scenes.

And yet at the same time the reader is treated to a classic quest and often lighthearted adventure. The desire to explore the world and gain glory by heroic deeds is fully indulged, making this story doubly satisfying as with one hand it delivers wish fulfillment and then with the other punches you in the gut with action exploding out of intrigue.

Setting

Of course, I would be remiss to deny the excellent work Douglas accomplished in building a world of wonder and adventure for this story to take place in. The setting is beautifully described and interestingly varied as the heroes travel on their quest.

But it never becomes boring or slows the story down. Much of that is due to the main character Rags. He is a well-read, but sheltered young man, hungry for experience to go with his knowledge. His enthusiasm, combined with the humorous frustration of his companions, makes exposition for each new location both wonderous and informative.

 

Found Family Characters

The characters are the real gems of The Black Crown. Ragoth (Rags), the sheltered yet determined Orcborn prince; Denith, the compassionate elf; Cortland, the human whose most sage advice is how to start a fight; and Mora, the Auroch woman who wants gold, and ale, and maybe to restore her faith in adventure—all make traveling this fantastic world a delight. Their differences and disputes make their binding friendship by the end of the book extremely gratifying.

When they are separated, there is a sense of expectation. The reader eagerly awaits how they will come crashing back together for glorious victory.

Rags has the most dramatic arc of the heroes, going from naïve and pampered boy to a legend who inspires loyalty and greatness in others. I appreciate how his journey brought out his heroic nature rather than grind him down with bitter disappointment. 

Epic Tropes

Readers familiar with the epic fantasy genre will recognize a couple of familiar tropes. The first is the Golden Age Myth—the longing for a better time that has passed or is passing away. In The Black Crown, this time is the “Age of Adventures.” The dungeons are all explored, the guilds are all empty, the opportunity for great deeds has closed. There is a sense in which the characters embody the reader’s own frustrated desire for quests, treasure, and glory. But I was pleased with Douglas’s spin on this trope. After all, the characters do get to experience an adventure in every sense. Someone even comments, “Who says the Age of Adventures is over?” It leaves the reader hopeful that as the series (titled The Age of Adventures”) progresses, there are more epic doings to look forward to.

The second common element that appears is the “Chosen One” protagonist. Douglas uses this to great effect plot-wise, so I will not go into too much detail. But it is satisfying to have this archetype delivered in so genuine a way, rather than pettily subverted. Rags is not hobbled by the role, either, but consistently acts to influence events. The trope reinforces the character traits that are already present.

Discrimination and Belonging

There are a couple of beautiful themes in The Black Crown, beginning with the curses of isolation and discrimination. Rags faces both within his own home, and leaving only makes them worse to begin with. His quest is to arrive at a place where he belongs to do something he is uniquely qualified to do, but the road is hard. He sees the injustice that the other Orcborn face, and is confronted over and over again with the prejudice of strangers, even as his companions overcome their own misgivings and become loyal friends.

Rags finds that the anger and fear he faces is not unwarranted, although misplaced. He cannot force others to accept him, even if he is not the one who hurt them. And yet, they cannot continue unconfronted.

The solution to this problem, as the story presents it, lies in the individual. Rags is loyal and valiant towards his companions, even early on or when they are antagonistic. Later, when he takes on the responsibility of tackling the bigger problem, his solution is to once again step up personally. He resolves to make a place where others—particularly his people—can belong. Of course, this presupposes that such a nation is itself something of both legitimacy and value—perhaps implying some more political thematic threads. It will be interesting to see how his project develops as the series continues.

For now, we are left with personal responsibility. Even though others are at fault, Rags builds a place for himself by his own perseverance, virtues, and wit.

Check Out The Black Crown!

The Black Crown is a masterpiece of epic fantasy, delivering high intensity fun without neglecting the expectations of the genre. I can’t wait to experience more of The Age of Adventures!

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