Every so often, I get an unbidden request from an author to review their latest story. I love these opportunities if only because I’m hungry for new material, even when it doesn’t come from publishing giants like HarperCollins. So I was happy last year to get an email from a Mr. Peter Fugazzotto about his latest self-published novella, The Witch of the Sands.
This story is about a group of mercenary swordsmen from the North, led by Shield Scyldmund, and their adventures in the ancient Dhurman Empire. After being paid to hunt down and kill witches, Shield is starting to reconsider his oaths and his line of work. But when he receives one last job from the Emperor himself, he can’t refuse—not even when he’s plagued with visions of his former love Brigid, another witch whom he swore to slay.
So what does this novella have to offer?
- Memorable characters. It would be easy to only flesh out Shield Scyldmund and turn the rest of his crew into generic warriors. However, Peter Fugazzotto actually takes the time to give each sellsword a unique speaking style, appearance, and quirks. This does a lot to build on the impression that these men are brothers in battle and have been through many adventures together.
- A clear sword-and-sorcery setting. The setting for our story takes place in a desert region ruled by a mighty empire, populated by Northern mercenaries and darker-skinned tribesmen and armies, with the occasional smattering of evil witches and warlocks. All this has a feel reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian or Red Sonja, where strapping warriors pit their blades against dark magic users who can raise up armies of the dead and other twisted powers.
- Lots of dialogue and exposition. One of the issues I encountered early on in this novella is that the action is surprisingly sparse. Even though we’re following a mercenary company, we really don’t see too many battles. We keep encountering Shield and his brothers just after they’ve come out of a brutal fight, while they tend to their wounds, collect their money, and squabble about their work after so many years of fighting for coin. The action does increase halfway through, but I was surprised at how little there was to start.
- Themes of old age and bitter memories. One element that I didn’t expect but grew to appreciate was the thoughtful nature of our hero protagonist, Shield. Even while he’s taking on his foes and getting paid for it, he has moments to stop and wonder about the path he’s chosen and what killing witches and warlocks so far from his homeland has earned him. It makes the final battle of the story all the more poignant and his choices all the more meaningful.
I don’t usually read novellas, but I’m glad I read this one. The Witch of the Sands does at least deliver on setting up its characters and pulling through a fairly strong plot about hunting witches and the price of that way of life. And it’s also good from time to time to encourage newer authors like Peter Fugazzotto in their writing and see what other stories are out there.
The Witch of the Sands is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon. Its sequel, Black River, is coming soon.
Bibliography: Fugazzotto, Peter. The Witch in the Sands. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2004.