A reluctant hero rises...

THE LEGEND OF BLACK JACK is a self-published novel that made waves last year within some bookish communities. After having received it as part of a book gift exchange, I was excited to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. 
4/5 While not everything landed perfectly for me, I really enjoyed going on this wacky adventure filled with tons of interesting side characters. 

The main protagonist of the story is, of course, Jack, a young boy with an abnormally good memory, but no other inherent abilities of note. What I found to be particularly interesting about him is that he both is and isn't the titular "Black Jack." Seeing him handle the lofty expectations placed upon him and grow from this pressure and all his trials was immensely satisfying. Along the way, Jack encounters a legion of interesting characters with diverse backgrounds who belong to various fantasy races. Initially, I felt like too many of these were just throwaway, but as I got further in the book, I came to appreciate that many of them ended up having meaningful roles in both the story and Jack's character arc. It is always impressive when secondary characters are written with depth and leave an impact even if their actual page time was fairly limited and I felt like this was the case for just about everyone. Because there are some early deaths, I also felt constantly on edge about who would or wouldn't make it to the end. I feel like this is especially important in stories like this where you kind of know that nothing is likely to happen to the main character unless they have a moment of self-sacrifice right at the end, so I enjoyed that I had to worry so much about the fates of his companions. Between an anthropomorphic rhino mage, a battle-weathered knight, and an honor-bound minotaur, there's just a ton to have fun with in this cast and that's not even to mention the three big bads of the story that were unique and interesting in their own ways.

When a tragic event (that feels contrived and dramatic enough to give the Walt Disney Company a run for their money) changes his life, Jack's story suddenly goes from endearing to dark and depressing. While these opening chapters would have been enough to make me turn my nose up to this if I was just reading a Kindle sample, they do quickly lead into the real start of the adventure when Jack is kidnapped by a magical rhinoceros wizard who whisks him away to the magical land of Keymark. The adventure that ensues is part medical drama, part swashbuckling shenanigans, part zombie apocalypse, and part fairy tale with lots of action and some epic battle sequences woven in between. I wouldn't necessarily say that the book is episodic, but there are some distinct stages of the journey that do make this feel like a string of different mini-stories. I feel like this is pretty common for this type of narrative, but I'm not always the biggest fan of this format since I sometimes feel like there isn't a strong enough sense of direction or forward momentum. That said, I think it worked pretty well here, especially after I realized this would be a series of smaller adventures with quick payoffs vs. just a bunch of characters meandering through the wilderness until they reached their destination. There were deadly encounters with huge monsters, exciting battles, and some spooky places Jack needs to escape from that all kept things feeling fun and fast paced the whole way through. I was also glad that the bizarre first couple of chapters were explained a bit more near the books end, though I still don't think they needed to get quite as dark and depressing as they did. I also had the expectation that this was a YA novel due to the cover, younger protagonist, and general setup of the plot, but the depictions of violence and gore make me feel like this is more so an adult fantasy that's meant to be reminiscent of the kinds of stories one might have grown up on. 

As with most "portal fantasies," things start off in the real world. Jack lives a bleak and meek existence until he is ushered into the vibrant (and deadly) land of Keymark. The geography and world building are revealed slowly over time which I always appreciate since I'm not huge on being bombarded with tons of details about a fantasy world. The biomes in Keymark are just as varied as the different species that dwell within them and I liked how a lush forest could suddenly give way to a frozen tundra. There is also a rich history that marks these lands with the mysterious elves (who have mostly withdrawn from the world) being at the center of how magical it is. In addition to the brilliant cast of characters, this enchanted domain is a huge reason to pick this book up. 

It needs to be said that one of the most impressive things about this book is how lovingly it was put together. Fonts and spacing make for an easy reading experience while elaborate chapter headings, cool sketch illustrations, and distinct iconography give the pages a truly premium feel even though this is not a special edition or anything. The cover isn't anything all that spectacular, but it reminded me distinctly of the ARTEMIS FOWL series which I enjoyed and also delivered a little bit more of that sense of nostalgia for me. 

THE LEGEND OF BLACK JACK is one of the most imaginative and fun coming-of-age fantasy adventures I've read in a long time and I would highly recommend it to adult readers who are in the market for something that feels both fresh and nostalgic. 

(+) Beautiful interior fonts and formatting
(+) A nice selection of cool illustrations
(+) Tons of action and adventure
(+) Interesting and meaningful side characters
(+) Cool and unusual villains
(+) A vibrant and varied fantasy landscape with rich lore
(+) A nostalgic vibe that mixes well with a story and characters that are distinctly fresh
(-) The first two chapters were oddly dark and depressing
(-) I wasn't sure why the begging and end of the book are told in present tense while the rest is in past tense
(-) I am unclear if this was meant to be a YA or Adult Fantasy (but most probably won't be bothered either way).


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