A medley of fantasy creatures...

THE WRITTEN is a book that has been on my To Be Read list for years now. The combination of it being offered for free on Audible as well as there being a Discord read along in one of the servers I have joined finally made for the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try. 

3/5 Although this book is foundationally important to the entire self-publishing community, there were some key elements that didn't resonate with me quite as much as I wanted them to.  

Where I think this book shines the most is in it's vivid fantasy setting and the interesting hodgepodge of fantastical creatures that it has to offer. Based on the book's own synopsis, this is a story that is supposed to be evocative of Norse Mythology. Aside from the harsh winter climate and the way that some characters are named, I have to say that I didn't really get Norse vibes of any kind. In many ways, I think that this is actually a good thing though, because the world ended up registering for me as a mashup of a lot of different things. There are vampires and werewolves, dragons and their half-dragon, half-human riders, Biblical Nephilim and silent gods, as well as even some hints that griffins exist in this world. The landscape is frigid and snow-covered with pointy structures made of stone and wood jutting forth from the tundra. Fires are warm and inns offer lively atmosphere. There are also ancient places filled with magic and mystery. I really appreciated the visual detail that Galley put into all of this scenery even though I didn't fall in love with any one place in particular. While some may roll their eyes at the fantasy creature salad, I rather liked seeing so many different types of beings all exist in the same place.

The magic in this world is on the softer (or at least more mysterious) side. Farden and the other "Written" get their elemental magics from painful tattoos that were inscribed upon them during a ritual as well as books that seem to govern what they can actually do. Then there ancient beings such as the dragons who have more innate magical abilities, though those are less defined. There wasn't anything here that I found particularly interesting on it's own, but I did enjoy how crazy some of the magical action sequences got with mages hurling fireballs and lightning bolts at one another. 

While the setting felt creative and well-defined, things broke down a bit for me when it came to the characters. Farden is a somewhat bland and unrelateable hero in my opinion. He kind of fits into the stoic, lone wolf architype in a similar vein to characters like Geralt from The Witcher. Unfortunately, this type of hero can be very hit or miss for me. In Farden's case, I think it was mostly a miss, though I didn't hate him or anything. I understood why he would be more reclusive, but a lot of his loneliness is self-inflicted and I often got the feeling that he didn't deserve the people in his life that do care for him. There are also a couple of different romantic subplots (one seemingly meant to be explored more later on in the series) that I did not feel at all bought into even though one of them is integral to the main plot. The side characters aren't at all bad, but they also didn't feel distinct apart from Farden's vampire mentor/friend and Farfallen, the latter of which is easily my favorite member of this cast. 

For a good portion of this story, I honestly wasn't really sure what the main "point" of the narrative was or where it was going. Things kick off after a grizzly attack on some scholars who have found an ancient book filled with mysteries. From this basic whodunnit setup, Farden is sent forth to find clues as to who may have instigated this attack and what their motives might be. The mystery elements are pretty light, with most of the detective work being accomplished by Farden's brute force and surly attitude. For me, the real story didn't really begin until Farden reaches Eska, the land of the dragons. This section of the story is where I felt like we finally got a clear picture of this world's history and learned about what was actually at stake in Farden's adventure. There was a part of me that contemplated DNFing the book until I got to this point, but I'm glad I stuck around because the land of the dragons offered some of the best content that this book has to offer. This is also the part that stuck out to me as being the most unique and atmospheric whereas I had kind of been feeling like this was a mostly generic fantasy (albeit with an unusual combination of mythical beings) up until this point.

Without diving into spoilers, it's worth mentioning that I found the ending to be a bit odd and sort of confusing. I also felt like the cliffhanger was not necessary and its inclusion actually made me feel less inclined to continue with the series (which I'm not sure that I will). 

The audio performance is another element of the story that is objectively sound, but still somehow did not really connect with me. I'm not really the most auditory person, so my mind will drift on occasion during really any audiobook. That said, I felt like I really had to fight to stop myself from doing that constantly with this one. I don't know if it was the narrator's tone or accent or what, but I ended up really wishing that I had carved out some plans to read this in a different format (audio was really the only way I could fit it in for the read along). I did note that he got a lot less monotone during the action scenes (which is admittedly a good time for a narrator to come alive), but the way he handled different characters didn't convey much to me and I sometimes found myself wondering who was saying what (fortunately, there are a lot of dialogue tags to help with this).

THE WRITTEN is one of those books that really put self-published fantasy on the map for a lot of readers and it is an important work that any reader or writer with an interest in indie books should definitely read. While I think it is immensely impressive that this is pretty indistinguishable from traditionally published fiction, that wasn't necessarily a positive for me as I tend to pick up self-published works specifically to get something a bit different. I recognize the value of this book and series and also had a nice enough time with the story, but it definitely did not click with me in all the ways I'd hoped. 

(+) Vivid descriptions of the scenery.
(+) Farfallen is an absolutely legendary side character
(+) I was fully immersed in anything to do with the dragons (even though I don't usually go crazy over dragons in fantasy books)
(+) Flashy action scenes with lots of cool magic
(-) I didn't find Farden compelling as a lead
(-) Many of the side characters felt forgettable
(-) The audio version is likely not the best way to consume the story
(-) A confusing ending with an annoying cliffhanger


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