Forged in Death, the first of six books in Jim Melvin's Death Wizard Chronicles, starts out with a scene from a claustrophobic's nightmare – Torg, the Death-Knower and king of the Tugars, is imprisoned by the evil wizard Invictus at the bottom of a cold, dark pit bored hundreds of feet into a mountain. He can't stretch out because the pit is too small, and he can't lean against the walls, because they're enchanted with flesh-burning magic. He either has to stand or curl into an uncomfortably tight fetal position.
We're only in the prologue, and the book is already giving me the willies. And that's a good thing.
Torg eventually escapes the pit and embarks on an Odyssey-like journey back to his desert home to stop Invictus from enslaving the world of Triken.
Jim Melvin's world-building was at once fantastic and logical, from the unique human cultures to the strange twists on traditional monsters. It's obvious Melvin put a lot of thought into the ecosystems that support his world. For example, Torg discovers a race of monkeys that live deep underground. How do they sustain themselves? By carving meat off a gigantic tentacled monster that inhabits the caverns, like microscopic mites on human skin. How does the monster survive? By eating the monkeys. It's an elegant symbiosis, and Melvin portrays other unique creatures similarly throughout the book.
Forged in Death has a non-traditional magic system – Torg enters a state of temporary death, feeds off the power of the afterlife, and then returns to his body magically recharged (which is why he's called a “Death-Knower”). The evil wizard Invictus, however, gets his power from the sun. This is a switch from most fantasies, which usually have the good guys feeding off the sun and the villains using death for their evil schemes.
The book also felt like a primer for real-world Theravada Buddhism (something the author acknowledges). The characters, Torg in particular, describe the principles behind meditation, karma, the eternal quest for enlightenment, and reincarnation. As one who's ignorant of Buddhist scriptures, I now want to read up on the subject to learn more.
I do have some quibbles with an otherwise outstanding novel.
The hero Torg was a likable character and an all-powerful wizard. But at times he seemed too good and too all-powerful. He won every battle unless he chose to lose, like when he allowed his enemies to throw him into the pit. I wanted Torg to fail or make more mistakes, and then watch him overcome those failures to become a different man by the end of the book.
Also, Forged in Death was a cliff-hanger book. I'm not a fan of the style, but it's a personal nit-pick of mine and not anything Melvin did wrong. Readers who enjoy cliff-hanger endings, however, will see no problem with it.
Forged in Death was beautifully written and a worthy addition to the epic fantasy genre. I hope to see Torg challenged a bit more in future books. I also look forward to learning more about Invictus, whose brief appearances painted him as an “interesting” villain. And the final battle between Torg and Invictus -- Triken's two most powerful wizards -- promises to be truly world-shaking.
Forged in Death is available on Amazon.