“Drake Sharazi, disgraced Royal Guard turned bounty hunter, has been exiled from Troi to the surrounding provinces, where resources are limited and starvation is commonplace. It is in this squalor and poverty he believes he shall spend his remaining days. But after years of labor and suffering, he has been given the chance to go home; to return to the life he has longed for since the moment he left his beloved city. But he quickly discovers that the life he desires is built on a foundation of lies.”
Drake – Exiled Royal Guard turned Bounty Hunter. He’s a cynic doing what he must to survive in a joyless, harsh environment.
Salazar – the Prince of Troi, an old friend of Drake’s who has been accused of treason by his father. He’s on the run believing that the King has set a price on his head.
Xavier – The new Captain of the Royal Guard, a rival and foil to Drake.
Lenora – Drake’s lost love, in what had been a complicated and possibly doomed relationship. She is resourceful and brave, also a skilled healer.
Behind the Vale is sort of like if an 80s sci-fi action movie got into a dust-up with a film noir. That is to say, it’s highly plot driven and fun and you’re likely to recognize a lot of the tropes it uses if you’re a fan of those things. We open on Drake’s life in exile – he’s an outcast Royal Guard doing all he can to survive as a Bounty Hunter in a crappy, dog-eat-dog society in the last, barely inhabitable outskirts of the world. These are seedy slums populated by dangerous people and the desperately poor and unlucky. Amongst the most dangerous are Mages, one of whom attempts to assassinate Drake in the opening scenes. Mages are skilled with mana and have the ability to channel it, where Royal Guards like Drake have a mana crystal installed in their bodies and can use it to power their weaponry – both methods have a cost in terms of pain and exhaustion, which makes for an interesting system.
The main thrust of the plot lies in the protagonist being given a second chance to make it back into the kind of society where food isn’t scarce – simple pleasures like hot water and entertainment are available. The King requests that Drake bring in his son – he’s on the run, mistakenly believing that he is to be executed for treason. He acknowledges that Drake’s exile was unjust but necessary to keep the peace, and apologizes. It’s an interesting scene because for all his action hero moments, Drake is shown to have a tender and emotional side. He has waited a decade to receive this vindication and once again pledges himself to his King.
The pacing of the story is very good, with the plot and worldbuilding being its main strengths. The city of Troi is dual-layered, with the people of each level given a different amount of privilege – the bottom six levels are literally designed to support the upper levels, which house the richer classes who are held totally separate. Everyone in the lower six lives in constant fear of losing their modest jobs and being forced out of their level and into poverty and exile, which proves an excellent means of keeping the population under control. This is the most prevalent theme of the novel and it’s well designed – Anderson hasn’t just made his world unfair, he’s given thought to how it remains unfair and what keeps the populace from rising up… a basic terror of life getting worse. It’s relatable.
The prose is pretty simple, and serves only to move the story along – while this was a downside for me personally I know a lot of readers won’t be bothered by it, particularly the kind of action fans who like to just get on with it. There’s some repetitive phrasing and a lot of mention of Drake “enjoying the feel” or “enjoying the taste” of something, but very little in the way of description in terms of what the thing actually felt or tasted like, for example. It’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of deal so taking a look at the sample on Amazon can help you decide if it’s an issue for you. Similarly, I found the dialogue to be fairly uninspired in terms of the characters having their own distinct voices. But again, it’s a very plot heavy piece and in that respect it did very well. There were twists on top of twists, the character motivations made sense and it certainly never committed the cardinal sin of being boring. By the end, there’s a lot that still hasn’t been resolved and it’s more of an intro to book 2 than an ending to book 1, but I found myself liking it. Overall I thought it was an enjoyable read that moved at a nice clip, with creative worldbuilding and solid commentary on the unfairness of this society in a way that also relates to our own. I’d definitely recommend it to action fans who like 80s sci-fi movies, simple prose and a competent, strong lead who isn’t afraid to cry.