Matt Forney
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The Wardog’s Coin by Vox Day

In his tribute to recently deceased sci-fi writer Jack Vance, John Dolan wrote that “it’s always a mistake to try to convey the greatness of science fiction to those who’d rather read about divorce on Cape Cod.” I guess I’m one of those people who would rather read about divorce, because I’ve never particularly liked science fiction or fantasy. I remain unconvinced that any other sci-fi writers aside from Philip K. Dick and Davis Aurini are worth reading (though Dolan has convinced me to give Vance a shot), and I’d rather have my fingernails torn off than read any of the dweeby sword and sorcery hacks who’ve followed Tolkien.

It’s not that I particularly love Tolkien—I’ll probably never crack The Lord of the Rings open ever again, and I’ve never seen any of the movies—but the people aping his style, like George R.R. Martin, are infinitely worse.

That said, I can’t resist free stuff, so when Vox Day announced that he would be giving this novella away for free (along with two others set in the same world as his novel A Throne of Bones) last week, I figured I’d snap it up. While I won’t claim that it blew me away or anything, The Wardog’s Coin is worth a look even if you don’t typically read fantasy novels.

The book consists of two short stories: “The Wardog’s Coin” and “Qalabi Dawn.” The former concerns a human mercenary company that is hired by an elf king to fight against orcs; the latter is about a race of anthropomorphic cat-people resisting a human invasion into their homeland. Vox Day succeeds where most fantasy writers fail because he is an astute student of history, his writing informed by real-world events, peoples and nations. For example, the invading human empire depicted in “Qalabi Dawn” is clearly modeled on the Roman Empire:

Vopiscus immediately forgot the messenger and returned to the more pleasant pastime of debating which province would be most ideal for his proconsular retirement…or governorship, as some still insisted on calling it. Mindoros was very pleasant, as was Epra, but both were on the wrong side of the gulf and rather too far from the heart of civilization. That left Thursia, which, it just so happened, was sure to have a vacancy, as its current governor was reported to be in poor health after ten years of wallowing in wealth and decadence on its southern coast. Vopiscus smiled, thinking about how the days would stretch into weeks, lying in the sunshine in a palace overlooking the calm blue waters of the Amorramare, surrounded by skilled musicians and his most amiable slave girls.

The Wardog’s Coin is also well-done from a technical standpoint; Vox’s depictions of battle and war are as realistic and believable as they get. Given that most fantasy writers are bespectacled dorks who’ve never thrown a punch in their lives, this is no small detail. He also excels at dialect writing, portraying the uneducated but smart mercenary captain protagonist of “The Wardog’s Coin” in a subtle, intelligent manner:

I glanced up nervously at the sky once or twice as the boy, down on his knees in front of me, confessed to a collection of evil deeds that would just about amount to a slow morning for Bigarse or the Bastard. But lightning didn’t strike me dead just yet, not even when I put my hand on his head like I seen the priests do and told him everything was good betwixt him and God.

My biggest issue with The Wardog’s Coin is the same problem that infects almost all post-Tolkien fantasy writing: an emphasis on world-building over character development. This is not as big a deal in Vox’s writing—a big part of the reason why I liked it—but there’s still enough of it, particularly in “Qalabi Dawn,” to annoy me. The reason why this is such a big deal is because modern fantasy/sci-fi authors are so obsessed with fleshing out every detail of their little made-up worlds that there’s little room left over for the characters themselves. This is how speculative fiction came to be dominated by autists and Aspies: normal people read fiction because of engaging and interesting characters, not because they give a crap about the history of the Ten Earls of Ballsackistan or whatever.

But, as I said, this is a minor point. The Wardog’s Coin is a fun, quick little read and has definitely gotten me interested in Vox Day’s other fiction books.

Click here to buy The Wardog’s Coin.

Read Next: As I Walk These Broken Roads by Davis M.J. Aurini