Apprentice wizard Odo is tasked with transporting some precious cargo to a king's court in a faraway land. Odo's protector becomes Inoch, a brutish mercenary captain with grey morals, a crossbow, and an itchy trigger finger. Together, Odo, Inoch, and his band of ragtag mercenaries face down bandits, brigands, and foul creatures with low enough THAC0 scores to ruin anyone's day.
And here I thought you just don't get fantasy like this anymore. The Wizard's Stone is a tight novel at only about 290 pages which doesn't go in for the worst excesses of door-stopper fantasy books yet author Herman P. Hunter indulges in just enough of the deep, descriptive, and dare I say, flowery prose that pulp era stories were known for that the reader can still manage to get lost in its pages. It's as much a coming of age story as it is a road trip from Hell story set in an oftentimes dark and dangerous fantasy world. The only thing missing here was a mysterious dungeon synth soundtrack to accompany the novel.
The main thrust of this novel is the dynamic between Odo and Inoch, two characters who are nothing alike but are teamed together through circumstance and must quickly learn to rely on one another in order to survive the harsh journey they find themselves on. Initially, these seem like two characters who shouldn't co-exist together at all; one a naïve kid who knows little about how the world outside his cloistered upbringing really is and the other a no-nonsense killer who's entire credo is to acquire gold and live long enough to spend it. Inoch's band of mercenaries, while technically side characters, are just as intriguing as the mercenary captain and the author wisely spends a little bit of time developing and expanding their characters so that when shit starts to hit the fan, the reader actually cares about them being placed in potentially lethal peril. This was one of those novels where I was casting an imagined film version of the story in my head as I was reading and for some reason I kept picturing Inoch as Kurt Russell in Escape From New York... only as a D&D character.
Speaking of D&D, the author's own byline acknowledges the Dungeons and Dragons influence in his writing, and as an old-school D&D nerd myself, one thing I found endearing about the magic in The Wizard's Stone was when I could spot exactly which spell Odo was casting from the magic-user spell list in the old Player's Handbook through Hunter's own creative descriptions. There were more than a few times reading where I would say to myself "Oh, there's Odo casting a Magic Missile again." or "Holy crap, Odo knows Shocking Grasp?!" Fun times.
Mild spoilers ahead, so skip this paragraph if you're sensitive to that kind of thing... perhaps the only minor quibble I have with this novel are a few moments of obvious trope adherence. For instance, you kinda knew the end was near for one particular character when they started talking about their potential plans for life after the adventuring days were over like the cop in the movie that's two days from retirement. These moments aren't really enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel, but your mileage may vary here.
If you're starved for some hard-hitting pulpy fantasy in an era of large publishing houses only putting out crap from the pronoun politics brigade that no one reads anyway, it's a safe bet you'll devour The Wizard's Stone in short order. I'm very much looking forward to seeing where this author goes next.