The Tattered Banner by Duncan M Hamilton tells the story of Soren, a young man living on the streets who, after a fight with a merchant, finds sponsorship from a wealthy aristocrat to learn sword fighting at the prestigious Academy, a ticket out of his old life and into a new life of fighting, diplomacy and politics.
This is not an easy book to make a judgement on. I found myself eager to read it when time allowed, but at a number of places put down the book in exasperation, and I made a lot of notes while reading (not a good sign). I certainly find it easier to pinpoint those elements that I didn’t like than those that kept me reading, so I’ll focus on that first.
Technical aspects are rather lacking. There was a lot of telling instead of showing – for example, during a duel I am told how Soren could tell he is the superior swordsman, and that his opponent is no match for him, rather than being shown how Soren could easily deflect attacks or spot openings, or that the opponent has a poor stance or allows his movements to carry too far. This happens a lot, not just with fighting either. On some occasions, the telling is followed by showing, but is unnecessary and sucks tension from the scene.
Hamilton also uses a lot of gerunds – words ending with “ing”. Soren was walking, his hand was shaking, he was watching. These are used so much it was noticeable, at least in the first half of the book. And again, this slows down the pacing and gives the narrator’s voice a certain amount of distance from the events and protagonist Soren that reduces the impact of the story and events.
There was at places, especially earlier in the book, a lot of info-dumping. It’s clear the history of the world is well fleshed out, but the way the information is presented really slows the pacing and takes the reader out of the story; I feel this information could have been covered more skillfully.
All of these technical aspects of the story, combined with a few missed grammatical and spelling errors (including two instances of “lightening” being used when “lightning” was meant – the former is what happens to the sky in the morning, the latter is the flashy electric bolt accompanied by thunder), and a few bits where a piece of information is repeated once too often, tell me that The Tattered Banner would have benefitted from more thorough editing, and perhaps a professional or at least an experienced eye.
Don’t get me wrong; this is not a bad book, and if these technical aspects were improved it would be quite a good book. So now I’ll move on to aspects of the story itself.
While the plot doesn’t feel like it had a definite goal or direction, I think it worked overall, with mostly good pacing. A sentence or two extra at the start of some of the scenes that happen a long time after the previous scene, or have a very different type of content, to provide stronger connections would have helped, but generally the plot flowed well and was logical. I think this is probably what kept me coming back. Hamilton reveals information at just the right time to keep the story enticing, with little hints and clues along the way.
The ending feels a little anti-climactic – the penultimate chapter in particular – and, the closer I got to the end the more apparent it became that this is part one of a planned series. Still, the plot makes the ending inevitable and at times quite exciting, but again Hamilton’s propensity to tell instead of show, and the rather distanced voice, meant the emotional aspect and subsequently the tension could have been stronger.
Characterisation is average. Soren’s actions and thoughts are both human and rational – he’s not one of these angsty protagonists, which is a breath of fresh air – but he has flaws too, flaws that make him very human and believable. One scene in particular, where he feels guilty about how he left things with another character but deals with that guilt by avoiding it rather than facing it, is I think a very human way to coping with unwanted emotions. But side characters don’t really seem to have much to them; they seem to be there to serve the plot, with little else in the way of personalities, hopes and goals beyond what the plot assigns them.
Overall, The Tattered Banner has a strong plot and generally good pacing, with some truly exciting moments, but is lacking in technical areas and supporting cast characterisation. I did enjoy reading it, but I think Hamilton should find a good editor to really make it shine. I rate The Tattered Banner 6/10.