“The Road to Dar Rodon” by Nat Russo

Too Short a Story for a Big World

"The Road to Dar Rodon" by Nat Russo — Kimia Wood Step into a fantasy world of mystic powers. Although the characters didn’t speak to me very well, the dirt under their feet, the towns on the horizon, and the “mythology” above their heads made me feel like Mr. Russo could just sign up a developer and Neverwinter Nights might have competition.

Before I begin, I’d like to disclose that I read The Road to Dar Rodon before the actual novel it was designed as a prequel to, Necromancer Awakening by Nat Russo. Essentially, although I understood the plot, the central character motivations felt underdeveloped.

Mujahid Lord Mukhtaar – a practicer of and believer in an outlawed magic system (namely “necromancy”) – is confronted with the news that a monkish order he had trusted to protect his friends have betrayed him, leading the official guard to slaughter his followers. Fueled with righteous indignation, he sets out to find the betrayers and exact his revenge, darn the consequences.

The evidence of the betrayal amounts to this: a witness and a piece of physical corroboration. This leads Mujahid to take off across an unforgiving desert to slaughter the leaders of the order he had counted on as friends.

My main problem was this: I didn’t see why Mujahid trusted the monks so much, so didn’t feel his sense of betrayal so deeply. I was told he had trusted them, but saw no instances of their previous relationship to build my own conclusions on. I understand this is a short story, but I struggled to connect to his anger and self-justification when I had seen so little of the world to explain it or put it into context.

Perhaps that was the intention. The philosophical thrust of the story is interesting, though the theological implications are more obscure. I don’t have enough experience with the author to guess his true purpose in so short a work.

I don’t like to be negative, so I got a secondary consultant to also read the story before I passed final judgement. He agreed that the mechanics of the magic system felt as real as ones we’ve used ourselves (in WoW’s Death Knights. Relax, guys.). It felt more like “channeling energy to activate abilities” than “dark spiritual pacts of unwholesomeness.”

My consultant admitted the whole idea of “necromancy” made him uncomfortable – as it initially did me – but we were curious to see how Mr. Russo explained this idea in the context of his story world. We both felt there was a lot more to the system than entered the story, hinting at a larger world. As my friend put it, by the end of the story Mr. Russo had won his confidence as a writer, moving us from apprehension at his choice of material to appreciation of the world he had created.

My consultant expressed it better than I had, but we both got a sense of the story-world’s deities being, well, more divine than the Greek mythology’s gods, for instance. They seem more transcendent than those “super-human gods” who are more interested in sleeping around and stealing each other’s stuff than vast, world-spanning plans beyond the perspective of mortals. Like the story’s philosophical moral it was interesting, and came across refreshingly nuanced. It’s hard to say how close Mr. Russo’s fundamental worldview is to ours, but we both appreciated the glimpse of deities who – while willing to interact with mortals – nevertheless have broad, metaphysical plans at stake.

In my consultant’s experience, the mighty Mukhtaar lord was introduced as a grand yet kindly Ben Kenobi figure, then pulls a Luke Skywalker and melts in an emotional outburst that my consultant found out of place. (This does fit with the strong Arabic overtones of the tale, along with the naming style, the billowing attire, and the sand-swept landscape.)

I’m not sure I agree about Mujahid’s emotional flipping, but we both agreed that his emotional portrayal felt underdeveloped, as though we could only observe Mujahid’s emotional journey, rather than participate in it ourselves.

Mujahid’s physical journey, on the other hand, hints at layers of world-building that tragically cannot be fully explored in a short story. It’s possible if I read Mr. Russo’s full novel, some of these things would become clear. In fact, this might be the point: to fuel my thirst for his full-length novel so I can uncover the full story.

Disclaimer: I received a free ebook copy of Road to Dar Rodon as a part of Mr. Russo’s birthday celebration on his blog. Thanks! (I was not required to write a review, positive or otherwise.) It’s available on Amazon: here.

Cover image is used with permission of the author.

EDIT: I have now read Necromancer Awakening, and you can find my review for it here.

The first chapter of Necromancer Awakening, included in the back of this volume, helps explain some of the references in this prequel. Alert: the material in this excerpt is much more intense than that of the short story Road to Dar Rodon. I should have perhaps guessed given the whole “necromancer” thing…just saying.


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