Sean Stewart is a writer who, for telling his own brand of tale while walking familiar genre roads, paid the price. Quality not able to overcome the herd’s desire for ‘more of the same crap’, he appeared, was recognized by writers and readers with an eye to talent, but was never supported with sales enough to drive a career. He has not published in a decade. A most unfortunate outcome, Stewart penned several fine novels, including Perfect Circle, Mockingbird, and Galveston. Nobody’s Son (1994) is his second, and while it may not be his best, is nevertheless a quality tale with its eyes looking beyond mainstream high fantasy.
Taking the classic fantasy trope ‘fatherless farmboy’ and moving it in a unique direction, Nobody’s Son shifts the focus away from the worldbuilding and complex plotting so common to Medieval fantasy and moves it toward personal resolution, moral value, and a bildungsroman that develops the main character in meaningful fashion. The use of language crisp and dynamic, and occasionally exuberant, what some authors tell in multiple volumes, Stewart accomplishes in less than 300 pages.
A curse hangs over the kingdom and it emanates from Ghostwood. The king offering any man his deepest desire if he can reach the Red Keep which stands in the middle of the wood and recover Sweetness—the sword no champion has yet been able to bring back alive, Mark decides to head out on his own to get it. A fatherless, penniless country boy, he has nothing to lose. Mysterious old ladies living in the forest, magic ponds that move boats imperceptibly, trees with evils airs shifting in their branches—recovering the sword proves no easy task. Mark discovers, however, that it is more a trap door than open door.
At once classic and modern, Nobody’s Son perfectly synthesizes Arthurian fantasy and a coming-of-age high fantasywith contemporary values. A modern fairy tale with darker, more personal stakes than simple honor and glory, the women do not behave as they should and the men show motivation beyond ego and id. The opening sequence at the Red Keep particularly imaginative, a wonderfully warm and creative tale unravels from then on. Stewart may treat some of Mark’s development rather briskly, and some plot events may turn a touch too easily, but Nobody’s Son nevertheless makes up for these shortcomings in characterization, mindset, and most importantly, its ambition to be more than typical.
Stewart may not be writing anymore, but it's no reason not to go back and discover his works.