I'm a big fan of Mark Lawrence's Self Published Fantasy Blog Off and while I don't participate in it, I always use it as an option to find new and exciting books to review. One of these books is Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehmann, an author I will freely admit to have talked to before I read his work back when we were both posters on the Forgotten Realms Candlekeep forums. So, take this review with a grain of salt but also note I've never been one to shy away from telling the truth about friends or their work. So, what did I think?
Shattered Dreams is an entertaining dark low fantasy novel about a Germanic kingdom under siege by an invading army, a religious cult devoted to the god of war, traumatized veterans, an elven wizard, and a talking squirrel. The fact this has a talking squirrel and this is still one of the grittier fantasy novels I've read since Game of Thrones. Indeed, despite the elven sections having high fantasy magic, the majority of the setting is a dark lawless world where life is cheap. Eventually, it becomes about a siege, a conspiracy, and a book which can end the world.
My favorite character is Dragnar Ralgon, who is a veteran traumatized by his experiences and driven to the point of suicide attempts. He makes an unlikely hero but events shift around him that links his personal tragedies to the larger threats in the kingdom. None of the characters are actually all that heroic, though, as they're all driven by various motives ranging from religious fanaticism to trying to make a last meaningful accomplishment before they are too old to fight.
Generally, the best part of this book are the parts which deal with the grizzled old veterans of the story like the Chosen, Riders, and Dragnar. This is the area where Ulff Lehmann's writing shines. He's also very good at building believable religions and conflicts with elaborate histories alluded to without indulging in unnecessary exposition.
There's a lot of good world-building which flows naturally through the text. The action in the book is minimalist but plentiful with a single blow of the sword usually enough to kill whatever it hits. Life is savage and cheap in the setting without any magical healing or unusually swift recoveries. Despite this, the most distressing death in the story was a most unexpected character. There's also a number of chaotic battle sequences where the results of the conflict are only determined after the final results.
There's a few flaws in the book which I think would have made it better. As much as I love the characters, their names are extremely hard to pronounce and the book would have benefited from a guide at the beginning like Mark Lawrence's Red Sister to consult. Maybe also a short description of who the various factions are and what they're up to. I also think the book could have used some more descriptions.
George R.R. Martin wasted unnecessary pages on description but I found I wanted to know the symbols and appearance of characters better than done here. It seems so realized that it deserves it, even if it would expand the world significantly. Finally, I think the book jumped around a bit more and would have been better breaking up the character sections with chapters. Again, I seem to be recommending it be more like A Song of Ice and Fre but it's a rare book that achieves that comparison.
The big appeal of the book is the "used universe" feel as this is the kind of planet where people actually live. There's talk of brothels, food, random events, and plenty of people have normal jobs alongside the mercs as well as wizards. Indeed, my favorite par of the book was a short scene where the High General has to make sure his troops pay for the food they eat as well as brothels they frequent even if they get free lodging.
In conclusion, while not perfect, it's a really detailed and interesting world, One I look forward to reading more of.