The Reader of Acheron is a dystopian fantasy novel, which is an under-represented subgenre in my opinion. Although other writers have successfully ventured into such territory (most notably Gene Wolfe in his Urth and Sun series, as well as the excellent Upper Kingdom series by H. Leighton Dickson), I don’t find many fantasy novels set in a post-apocalyptic future, and even less written well.

Walter Rhein establishes his world without having to resort to padding the novel with unnecessary filler and back-story. The story is fairly straightforward, following the travels of a morally ambiguous duo of mercenaries on one hand, and on the other a runaway slave in search of meaning. The backdrop is a world that feels like a medieval tale set in pre-Civil War America, but not quite. In other words, it’s quite original, unlike the typical dystopian or fantasy setting. And while there was room to flesh out both world and characters, Rhein does enough to create characters and ideas that can be used later on in the series if need be.

There are a lot of ideas here: slavery, and what makes a man free. The value of words and reading, especially when those in power restrict literacy to only the ruling class. The choices we make, for good and bad, and the consequences that result. Once could argue that Rhein gets by delving into any of those topics by glossing over them all, but I found that the point of the story wasn’t to lecture on ethics and big ideas. Rhein doesn’t use his characters as an avenue to debate social issues. They do what they do for personal reasons, and their actions drive the narrative.

The characters are driven by circumstance and survival, refreshingly without any predestined quests or prophetic journeys. There are no heroes here, and really no true villains either. Rhein has a talent for character-driven narrative that pays off well in this story. The only weakness I noted was a lack of interesting female characters. Granted it’s been a while since I finished the novel, but I can’t remember a single female character that was noteworthy. This is the first of a series, so hopefully Rhein will introduce such a character in the next installment.

Overall, a well-written novel worthy of your attention. I will definitely be following this author’s work.

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