In a world of swords and sorcery, a group of downtrodden soldiers spend their days trying to survive on the Fringe, widely considered to be the worst place in existence. Forced to live in subhuman conditions to fight superhuman creatures alongside non-humans to win an inhumane war, is enough to drive a person to drink.
This was such a pleasant surprise! Set in a trench warfare environment, Trench: A Fantasy Novel of Epic Inconsequence is a humorous, slice-of-life look at the lives of a band of soldiers locked in eternal battle in a world of magic and monsters. This is a world previously governed by its gods, who pretty much gave it up as a bad job once they realized that their creations couldn’t coexist and much preferred trying to eat one another. This led to a situation where Orcs, Goblins and Trolls have banded together on one side and Humans, Dwarves and Elves on the other. We join the latter races, as Sergeant Miller greets a group of new recruits along with Treesinger, an elf who is his best friend on the front lines. They quickly size up the ragtag bunch of newbies and place their bets on which will prove to be “The One”, because there’s always one.
Once the group reaches the trench, Miller shows them around and the recruits begin to understand the reality of their situation. “Sneak attacks” take place every Tuesday, as each side finds a way to set off the other side’s magical ward to allow them to go over the top and beat the piss out of one another. They live knee deep in mud, their artillery is severely lacking, the food is awful, and their healers consist of a coven of hedge witches. They’re unlikely to ever see home again, but they have also found a number of inventive ways to keep themselves amused. This typically takes the form of bawdy humor, good-natured banter, constant pranks, wagers, and general drunken antics. Childress grants us a frank and sardonic look into the mundane reality of life on the front lines, and the camaraderie is easily its biggest strength. Our cast includes a self-righteous witch-slayer, a feisty Dwarven engineer, a renowned Mage, a smith with a distaste for clothing, and their flirtatious Captain. Each one is given time to shine, they’re well developed and their conflicts and growing love and respect for one another is given ample time to breathe and develop. This makes up the bulk of the novel, along with plenty of crude humor and a real sense that these are people we care about.
Once that is well and truly established, Childress ups the stakes.
The last 20% of the book is filled with tension, excitement and a surprising amount of poignancy. At one point I found myself both laughing and cursing the author for hitting me out of left field and making me cry at a book that is jam-packed with dick jokes and silliness. Taking its cues from comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth and M*A*S*H, Childress first draws you in with belly laughs and absurdity, then turns on a dime and makes you feel genuine apprehension and sorrow. It’s fantastically well done, and the gravity that gradually permeates the story left me absolutely delighted. While Trench is, in some ways, a diamond in the rough, Childress is an extremely gifted storyteller and his work is very compelling. This is definitely an author who I’ll follow with interest to see how he develops.
As far as criticisms go, I have few complaints. Occasionally a joke didn’t land for me, which is to be expected when they come so thick and fast. Most of them did. The author does have a habit of using dialogue verbs other than “said” – the problem with this is that our eyes tend to slide over “said” without paying too much attention to it, where frequent use of words like “questioned”, “spat”, “wheezed”, “gasped”, “consoled” etc. can become distracting. Since this is a debut, that is easily forgiven, and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of an extremely well constructed story.
Disclosure: In the interest of transparency, I noticed very early on that Trench had some severe editing issues. Since in every other respect I found it to be very enjoyable, I reached out and offered to copy edit the novel as I read it. No payment was requested, but the author very kindly sent me a gift in return for this service: a necklace made by his wife, valued at roughly $100. This gift does not change my opinion of his work, and these events only alter my score in that I no longer have to lower it due to the editing errors that have now been corrected.