Friday, 28 October 2016

What's Level One?

You don't see much of level one heroes.  In role-playing games they're the characters no one would be foolish enough to try and play; in video games, that's the stage of fighting rats with a wooden sword in papier mâché armour for about five minutes before you move onto bigger and better things.  In general, we tend to see heroes who are already past the most embarrassing stages of their learning curve, or at least ones who pick up the basics at a fair lick.

But the truth is, in the real world we spend an awful lot of our lives at level one.  Most of us spend more time learning than we do mastering, more time being mediocre and okay and just about capable than we do being slick and smart and skillful.  Greatness doesn't just arrive from nowhere, it's something that has to be learned, slowly and painfully and with many a setback along the way.  And that's even more true when you're a teenager, when so much of what life has to offer seems insurmountable, unfeasible or out of reach.

All of this is what The Black River Chronicles: Level One is about.  The Black River Academy for Swordcraft and Spellcraft is the place where young people learn the relevant skills to be functional members of their respective classes: rogues who don't immediately get caught, rangers who know how to shoot a bow, wizards who don't inadvertently lightning bolt their own feet off and fighters who don't get pasted by the first troll they run into.  And becoming really efficient in any of those fields is no easy feat.  As with any prospective career, there's a huge amount to be learned and endless skills to be mastered.  An education at Black River is guaranteed to be long, arduous and life-threatening - but not necessarily successful.  In case it's not obvious by now, just getting past that lowly level one is a feat in and of itself.

Which is precisely what Durren Flintrand is discovering as the book opens.  For his first few months at the academy, and for reasons of his own, he's been getting by with the least amount of effort he can manage, determined not to draw attention by doing anything too impressive or exceptional.  But the news that henceforward he'll be one member of a party, and that the only hope of success for any of them is to succeed together, throws all of Durren's plans into disarray.  No longer can be get away with being just good enough, and suddenly the risks are a lot greater too: hostile rat-folk, a murderous unicorn, magically inclined priests guarding a dark and deadly secret.

Level One isn't precisely Durren's story, though; I wouldn't even go so far as to say that Durren is the hero.  One of my main goals was that each of the core characters would have their own arc, their own history, their motivations and failures and triumphs.  Just like Durren, the other three have histories that are holding them back to greater or lesser degrees; just like him, they need to work through those if they stand any chance of succeeding.  Aside from being burdened with an absurdly long name, Areinelimus Ironheart Thundertree is the only dwarf wizard currently in existence, and she's terrified by the danger and responsibility of the magic she has access to.  Fighter Hule comes from a culture where punching is considered more useful than talking, while rogue Tia has some major trust issues, ones that aren't helped by being the only member of the party who's at all competent.  Oh, and Pootle is a flying eyeball called Pootle.  Which, all told, is probably not an easy thing to be.

To all of that I'd add that Level One is one other thing as well: it's incredibly cheap until the end of the month, which adds up to three days and a bit at a time of posting.  So if you want to grab a copy for a measly $0.99 or £0.99 then now's your chance.

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