The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree (volume one and two of the Outlaw King series) by S.A Hunt takes the reader into the wild, wild west of the fantasy world Destin and does it with panache. Though primarily a fantasy story there are also strong elements of both horror and mystery. In short it’s wild, compelling and pretty damn awesome.
The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree begins with Ross Brigham attending his father’s funeral and then being drawn into a world full of magic, gunslingers, gods and monsters. This world, called Destin, is actually one written about in his father’s successful series of fantasy novels, which interjects certain ‘meta’ elements into the plot throughout.
While the characters are excellently realised, the true star of the book is the setting imagined by S.A Hunt. Destin is vast and sprawling yet full of the tiny details that make an imagined world believable. That the author is able to do this suggests a powerful imagination allied with a disciplined writing style and excellent sense of place. Had the Whirlwind in the Thorntree simply been a travel book around Destin it would have been worth reading, but discovering it through a compelling plot is a literary experience all readers of fantasy should have. The true test for any setting is; if I were a kid would I like to imagine myself being there? While I don’t want to speak for myself as a kid, as an adult I can definitely say yes.
Ross Brigham is presumably based on the author S.A. Hunt. Both were with the army in Afghanistan and both are writers. While this may partially explain why he is such a strong character, it is clear from the rest of the ‘cast’ that the author has a gift for conveying individuality.
Brigham is dragged into Destin with two devotees of his father’s work, Sawyer and Noreen. It would have been very easy for these characters to have been stock characters, just providing exposition and nodding when the main character talks. Instead Sawyer and Noreen grow and develop distinct and very real personalities. In fact, after reading the novel you will feel as if you could meet them in a bar and hold a conversation with them. An achievement every author strives for.
What helps the central characters stand out is their very distinct dialogue, which is unique enough that you would be able to tell which dialogue was Sawyer’s, Ross’s or Noreen’s even if there was no other text. This dialogue is in part so distinctive and natural because the characters regularly make references to their favourite TV shows, movies and works of fantasy fiction. The vast majority of readers will get the references but even if you don’t it’s not important as they make sense in context, which is all that matters. After all, a modern audience watching Shakespeare will miss at least 50% of the references the characters are making yet that guy’s plays are still packing them in.
As Ross, Sawyer and Noreen travel across Destin they encounter far too many characters to be detailed in this review; but I will say that the gunslingers are some of the coolest, most badass, creations I’ve come across in any medium, not just literature.
As befits a novel about gunslingers set in a fantasy world, The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree is not on short excitement and fight scenes. These scenes are dizzying, frantic and do require the reader to pay attention if they want to take everything in. So just how fight scenes should be written. One issue I often have with many fantasy books is that the fight scenes throughout an individual novel can be too similar, which leads to them losing any sense of urgency or danger. This is far from the case in the Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree. Here each fight scene is distinct and the reader will fear for the characters every time they are in peril.
At the time of writing The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree costs about as much as the coffee I’ve just finished drinking. This is insane. All I got from the coffee was a caffeine hit, an increased desire to go to the toilet and some faint guilt about spending over £2 on a product that is mainly water. The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, on the other hand, gave me hours of entertainment as I travelled with interesting characters across a strange land.