- The Keep Within
Author: J L Worrad
Publisher: Titan Books
- ISBN: 9781803362977
- Published: March 2023
- Pages: 496
- Format reviewed: Paperback
- Review date: 26/04/2023
- Language: English
There is something about Low Fantasy that makes it such a good genre. It is not the violence, swearing or muckraking, it is the people. Reading a fantasy book where the heroes are not in white and the villains in black. In J. L Worrad’s The Keep Within the nominal hero is one Sir Harrance 'Harry' Larksdale, one of many illegitimate brothers to the King. He has an artist's heart, but also one of ambition. The seller of the theatre to the high court, but also the seller of sex and drugs. Is this really the person to save the world?
Deep within the Keep is a secret and a curse, should anyone talk about it outside its walls, they will be dead within days. Is it the curse of Red Marie, a murderer on the loose in the impoverished areas of the city? Perhaps it is the mysterious old woman and her young aid visiting the city with bag in tow? Larksdale could not care less as long as his mustard shipment arrives on time, he has ambitions and plans, perhaps even take the crown for himself. There will be no kingdom to rule if the secret of the Keep gets out and it appears that Larksdale must put all his actorly skills to use to save the day.
Keep is the second book of Worrad’s set in the same world as their earlier Pennyblade novel but stands on its own. Pennyblade was an interesting Low Fantasy novel with some great world building, but it was almost too shocking, even for a hardened reader of the format as me. Keep feels like a real progression, both in storytelling and character, but also making the book more palatable, with still having enough sex and murder to keep us all happy.
In this instance the book works so well because of all the great characters. The main protagonist is Larksdale, but the story is told from several perspectives including one of the Queens and a mysterious witch like character. We even get to see events through the eyes of the killer, Red Marie. There is magic and folklore weaved through the book, but also a grittiness. Worrad likes nothing better than to pop a character’s arrogance should it get too much. There are some great twists that the reader will not see coming.
There has been a recent tradition of Low Fantasy and political intrigue, with vying families fighting for the crown. Keep is a new twist on this by containing all the backstabbers and ne’er-do-wells within the keep. The King has many illegitimate brothers, rather than be killed or cast aside, they are given roles in the court and their mothers ‘looked after’ in the keep. This means that there are many men who believe they have as much right as the King to wear the crown, all under the same roof.
Larksdale works so well in this courtly drama as he is both part of it and not. He runs a theatre and loves the arts. His plays are what keeps him in the king's favour but also the drugs and ruffians he can procure. A deeply flawed character, but one who is more sympathetic than most. He finds himself thrust into a quest that he does not want and had no plans for. This makes his predicament even more exciting.
As the world of Pennyblade establishes itself, I am more than impressed on the step up in Keep. This is a wonderfully contained novel with great characters, intrigue, and action. It is also funny in a dark way. I would not want to live in the world that Worrad has created, but I love to visit. I would compare this outing favourably with some of the best Low Fantasy of recent years. A novel that promises even more darkly exceptional stories in future books.
Written on 26th April 2023 by Sam Tyler .