Rough Magick is the first book in a trilogy called the GnomeSaga. This is intriguing to me because, as far as I know, gnomes are the least-liked race in fantasy. Existing somewhere underneath kender and well-beneath dwarves, gnomes are a group of people which don't really have a fantasy idiom to call their own.
This is mostly Professor Tolkien's fault as he managed to define what elves and dwarves were but didn't take time to spell out what gnomes were. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman gave gnomes the bailiwick of being the anachronistic holders of technology in a fantasy world, which the gnomes of Azeroth cemented as a quality of them, but they're still fairly unloved.
Kenny Soward is not going to be the one who changes gnomes forever in the public mind, in all likelihood, but he'll likely be referred to as a man who gave them their time in the sun. GnomeSaga is a story about gnomes with gnomes as the heroes and it does a reasonable job at showing them as perfectly capable of holding their own in a high fantasy story.
The premise is there is a multi-dimensional empire ruled by a mysterious "Baron" which utilizes a race of stone-based lifeforms called (appropriately enough) Stonekin to conquer other races. These people, along with mind-controlled slaves, are forced to fight to the end in the Baron's service with no hope of escape. The Stonekin's leader, Jontuk, has found an inventor who is prophecized to lead them to freedom.
She just has no idea about any of this.
Niksabella is a nerdy shut-in inventor who is too focused on trying to get her infinite energy device (powered by magic) working to care about these sorts of things. Ridiculed and laughed out of polite Gnomish society, she is taken care of by a handful of friends who still believe in her. Her brother, Nikselpik, is a necromancer of no small skill but has ruined his life with an addiction to "Bugging." A habit which is functionally identical to heroin use.
These two oddball antiheroes are going to find themselves caught up in an extra-dimensional war which not only threatens their Steampunk-esque fantasy homeland but much of the rest of the Mutliverse as well.
I should mention, before we continue, Rough Magick reads very strongly like Dungeons and Dragons fiction. Clerics cast spells which heal, wizards throw fireballs, and just about everything functions like someone is rolling dice in the background. As someone who grew up playing 2nd and 3rd Edition, this isn't a bad thing.
Readers may be surprised to find out this isn't official Dungeons and Dragons fiction but a wholly original piece. Frankly, I wouldn't mind if the author did a Pathfinder or other 3rd Edition-influenced supplement for the setting as it might be fun to play in once or twice.
Despite its heavy D&D-inspiration, the setting still feels pretty original and evocative. The gnomes have a fantasy steampunk-esque society with its own laws, customs, practices, and habits. They feel somewhat like if you dropped a bunch of Londoners from H.G. Wells and his contemporaries in the middle of a Tolkien-esque fantasy setting then cut them in half.
It's slightly more adult than most D&D fiction I've read with Nikselpik being a drug-addicted lech but not so much I'd even rate it PG-13 versus PG. The author even uses made-up swear words like "futtering", which means exactly what you think it does.
The characterization is fun and I can't say any of the characters annoyed me. I could have used a bit more description in places like the amorphs, the Stonekin, and otherwise but the author is usually quite good at giving the reader an idea of his rather bizarre universe. Clearly, the author also sat down to figure out who does what and how in the gnomes' society and that effort shows. I even liked both leads' romantic troubles, which I rarely say.
So, overall, I'm going to give this a very high rating. It's not perfect and the story often overwhelmed me with so many new names but the author transported me into a high fantasy world which I liked. If you have any affection for worlds where fireballs are flung, tyrants are overthrown, and steam robots fight with alien-parasite controlled zombies then this is the book for you. I barely even noticed the heroes were four-feet-tall.
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