Graydon Saunders’s 2018 The Human Dress is a standalone secondary-world fantasy novel.
Braemor lies just south of lands still claimed by the Walking Ice. It’s a challenging place for humans. It is barely post-glacial and home to humongous beasts that we might call “dinosaurs.” Misfortune or a bad winter could send the community into a death spiral.
So could a deliberate campaign of sabotage.
Lugan has lost his wife to death and his home to magical annihilation; he is inclined to blame King Galba. But Galba is not the guilty party. Omund and his kin (with the exception of Tyl) are the next to die, blown to powder along with their mill. Again, Galba is not the guilty party. He would be stupid indeed to destroy the infrastructure on which his town depends.
The sabotage is not limited to unexpected explosions. Undead life-hungry corpse-suckers (once a minor hazard) are increasing in number and ferocity. It is as if someone, somewhere, has figured out how to deliberately breed corpse-suckers and that someone has it in for Braemor.
The villagers might try to find new ways to deal with the familiar menaces. Another ploy might be to discover the enemy at work and stop he/she/it/them.
The second strategy will take the warriors of Braemor halfway around the world. The first strategy will transform that world.
Readers of a certain vintage, old enough to remember the hallowed days of yore on rec.arts.sf.written, may be interested to know that this is Graydon’s oft-spoken-of tome, the Doorstop. Since my copy is composed entirely of electrons I cannot look at the last page of a dead-tree copy and opine as to page-count. However, Amazon claims that the erstwhile Doorstop is 947 pages.
Thanks to some of my recent interests, I am well-placed to observe that the setting reminds me of the venerable roleplaying game Runequest. The world of the novel is a Norse-flavoured setting in which magic is not inborn but learned. Anyone who cares to put in the effort can learn at least some magic. Magic is useful enough that most people do. As is the case in Runequest, people tend to learn spells useful in daily life. There’s little point to splashy, destructive magic … most of the time.
Those familiar with Saunders’ other novels may fear that the narrative will be veiled in quirky, hard-to-parse prose. Fear not. Although the language is very formal, it does not require decoding.
In the book’s blurb, Saunders reveals that The Human Dress is a response to The Lord of the Rings. A response, not a Brooks-style pastiche. For one thing, the book lacks LOTR’s overwhelming conviction that the world is has fallen from a previous, better time. Saunders’ world is different (to judge by the snippets of history we are given) but it is no way lesser.
The characters are memorable, which paradoxically works against the semi-protagonist Tyl. (Remember him? His family died in the mill explosion.) He might take center stage in another book; in this one, he shares the stage with a large cast of characters, most of whom I found interesting.