Key is the first effort from Australian artist and author Kylie Leane and published by our good friends at Grail Quest Books. At just over 500 pages and a story that combines fantasy, science-fiction and scattered references to pre-Christian mythology and a cast of roughly a dozen significant characters, it can certainly be said that this tome represents a fair amount risk for author and publisher alike. And the question we’ll address here is whether or not the risk is worth it, and thus worth your money to buy and time to read.
Ms. Leane starts us off slowly, introducing us to Zinkz Maz as he practices his hunting skills. We learn a good deal about his character when he decides to spare the beast he is hunting, as he would soon be able to purchase any food he might need . We also meet Zinkz’s mentor Denvi, a cat-like being known as a Katamont. After some light verbal sparing Zinkz enters the nearby town where the action quickly picks up and he is thrown in prison for illegal hunting.
Zinkz is thrown into a cell with Shanty, a Kelib woman who is lying broken and beaten on the floor of the same cell Zinkz is thrown into. Naturally, he rescues her and with preliminary introductions out of the way the story begins to unfold.
Through various pieces of skillfully crafted dialogue we gradually learn that Livila, the world the story takes place on is dying, having been slowly eaten away from the inside by a beast called the Dragon. The damage eventually broke the planet apart and all life on it would have died long ago if not for the intervention of the Zaprexes, a race of space travelling cyborgs who built a series of mysterious towers that worked to hold the remaining pieces of the planet together. However, the towers and the Zapraxes failed and Livila’s demise appears imminent.
There was however a prophesy that there would come a Key that could restart the towers and defeat the Dragon once and for all. And it is this Key that Zinkz (and Shanty) is searching for.
One might be concerned that the Key is nothing more than a generic Macguffin, a mere object to be chased after that has no unique significance to the story beyond its function as a plot device. Well, rest assured that is not the case. The Key is a fully functioning character, a Zaprex child who is capable of restarting the towers.
As the trio of Zinkz, Shanty and Sam (the aforementioned Zaprex child) travel throughout the world of Livila we are treated to a number of imaginative landscapes. From the massive forests of Shalamic, the technological wonder of the Zaprex ruins and the dark beauty of the land of the Batitics, Ms. Leane draws in the reader with vivid descriptions of the unique characteristics and cultures of each realm and the borderlands in between. There are moments, especially in the beginning where the descriptions are perhaps a bit too wordy and actually hinder the immersion but these are few and easily forgivable.
As beautifully as the landscapes and cultures are realized, where the author truly shines is in her portrayal of the relationships between the different characters, particularly between Zinkz and Shanty. While on the run, searching for the pieces of the map that will enable Sam to restart the towers, they slowly develop a deep and warm intimacy that makes the story relatable on several levels. Most importantly, it does so not with the moral relativism and rationalization that is usually deployed for purposes of “relatability” but through their awkward and halting attempts to develop a relationship despite their vast cultural differences. Admittedly, some may find the relationship develops too slowly but I found the slow pace, with almost as many steps backwards as forwards refreshing and more true to life than the usual pace of “relationships” that one finds in the typical modern novel or movie.
Other characters such as the young and untested prince Daniel, his Batitic friend Skeyola, and the villainous Lord Zillon also come to life through dialogue that both moves the story along and reveals much of the the different character’s personalities without getting into long periods of exposition.
Given the large cast of characters (I’ve only touched on a few of the most important) one might worry that many suffer from insufficient “screen time.” Ms. Leane’s way of dealing with this is to tell each chapter from a different character’s perspective, allowing us to see through his eyes a bit and interact with the others from a slightly different angle. This mechanism allows us to understand and even care about characters that would otherwise fade into the background.
Of course, there are some things that aren’t quite fully developed, such as Denvi’s travel through his homeland of Utilla. During a dialogue with one of the other characters he is traveling with it is suggested that this would be a fairly significant thing but the next time we meet them, they are leaving that land for the primary realm of Pennadot as though nothing of interest had happened.
The Twizels, the primary henchmen of the Dragon also suffer a bit. Not from lack of development as they are indeed terrifying creatures. Rather, they suffer a bit from overuse. Aside from the very beginning and the very end of the book the Twizels are pretty much the only thing we see Zinkz and the others fighting against. This would be fine except that they are extremely difficult to defeat, requiring some sort of intervention from another character to prevent Zinkz from dying. On one hand, this emphasizes the theme of friendship and its importance that informs much of the story, reminding us that even the primary hero is not an island. On the other, one of the reasons for Zinkz’s legendary status within this secondary world is that he has the rare distinction of having defeated a Twizel single-handedly. It would be nice to see this a bit more in the story.
One other quibble has to do with a pair of titles that are given to two of the main supporting characters, Hazanin the Time Master and Borokushu, the God of Death. Without going too much into the characters here, it is difficult to see how these titles apply to them. Hazanin is clearly a gifted long term strategist and is behind most of the events as the plot moves forward but Time Master doesn’t quite seem to apply while Borokushu’s title isn’t revealed until the last pages and comes as a bit of a surprise. However, this is only the first book in a series so it is likely that these titles will be further explored and explained in future volumes. My only criticism here is that a couple of hints in this first book would have helped flesh things out a bit.
Still, all of these are relatively minor quibbles. Ms. Leane has succeeding in crafting a world of rich and varied landscapes and cultures that are filled with unique and engaging characters. Additionally, those characters are revealed to us through surprisingly true to life relationships, filled with very real insecurities and desires, all without falling prey to the common tropes that one is used to finding in most modern fantasy. Nor do they simply revert to more traditional stereotypes. In short, Key presents us with a world that is truly worthy of the term “sub-creation” and I for one am very much looking forward to Ms. Leane’s next volume. A solid four out of five stars. You can pick up a signed copy direct from the author.