THE LAST SHIELD by Cameron Johnston (BOOK REVIEW)
“How much fight can one broken old woman have left in her?”
Briar, Commander of the Shields is about to show you…
Sunweald Palace, home to Lord Regent Alaric Summerson and his nephew, the king-in-waiting, Kester Summerson, prepares for the Summer Solstice celebrations where the Druid rituals bring many travellers for the festivities. However the joyous celebration turns quickly into bloodshed when a brigand called the Wildwood Reivers and their allies attack and secretly infiltrate themselves deep within the Palace’s catacombs. For Sunweald sits between two warring nations, the Holy Wrendal Empire in the West and the Federated Principalities of Ves in the East, and both would do anything to get their hands on what the Palace has hidden away deep underground within its walls—The Wyrm Vault. Inside this vault are artefacts of immense arcane power. The elite Shields are the only defence Sunweald has, it is down to Briar to use all her strength to protect the Regent, the to-be-king and the Vault. Though the odds are stacked immensely against her.
The Last Shield by Cameron Johnston takes the concept of Die Hard, places it in a castle and delivers one hell of a pulse-racing, cinematic fantasy read. This is a novel of honour, duty and fighting tooth and claw to protect the ones you love.
Early on in the novel Briar sustains a rather dire injury causing her to be bed-bound for a considerable period. To say that Briar is strong willed and determined would be a gross understatement, she is an absolute force. Although many times I shouted for her to slow down, accept help, to understand that it is not a weakness to accept that your body can no longer endure what it could before, I understood that is not a Shield’s way. No, for a Shield their strength and ability to defend against enemies is everything and without that they have no purpose, therefore I could follow Briar’s mindset and found her pushing through every ounce of pain and hardship something to root for. Briar’s age is never clearly stated but I imagined her to be in her late 30s to early 40s and over those years of experience and hard graft she has developed a tough exterior, she’s a woman of little soft words and many scowls… basically she’s a character I’d want to keep on my side! Yet there was one who Briar’s affection and warmth did extend to—Regent Alaric. Their unspoken longing actually spoke volumes and I enjoyed that very much.
For all of Briar’s toughness she actually proves a rather good influence on our young king-in-waiting, Kester, who sorely needed someone to fear and respect in equal measures. Kester starts off as a spoiled, rather lazy and utterly clueless young boy. Taking no responsibilities seriously nor having any desire to sit upon the throne and have a whole realm to rule, our Kester focuses more on drinking and the merriment which a royal life brings him. Yet after seeing the brutality and savagery of the Reiver’s attack he begins to realise how his actions affect others, how his cowardice could lead to many dying on his account. Kester became my favourite character, one I could really feel for as having lost both his parents at a young age and having no guidance had left him adrift. Once he was forced to grow, to have real purpose and to fight for survival, he truly shines.
“Despite what the bards and boasters tell you, not every battle sees you covered in glory – mostly, you just end up covered in blood and shit and tears. The best you can hope for is that it all belongs to some other poor bastard.”
Johnston’s action scenes were some of my favourite parts of the book. Vividly detailed and cinematic, Johnston paints a picture of Bronze Age Scotland with specific attention to describing the weaponry, armour and combat tactics. I really appreciate when an author can do this, when you can imagine the whole scene playing out because it’s written so well. There is plenty of blood and gore and a particular scene with a severed hand that even made me squirm a little—so yes this is a dark fantasy. The distinction between our heroes and our villains is always made clear, the world is a ruthless place but it is also filled with some good people. I wish I could talk about the villains in more detail because there are plenty of those to hate and seeing them meet grisly ends was rather satisfying, but their identities would spoil the twists that are sprinkled throughout, so I’ll leave that be.
The world also includes much Druid sorcery, necromancy and the Fae, so it is richly filled. Though I wanted a touch more from the fae, more about their history within the land and their powers, for a standalone novel Johnston does a great job of balancing other historical details and political intrigue. Magic is used somewhat sparingly until we reach the climax of the novel where the villains begin to realise they need to up their game if they want to succeed in their plans. Which leads us to the object of everyone’s desires, The Wyrm Vault. Here Johnston cleverly withholds what exactly is inside this vault building up our anticipation as we are always left speculating and know it must be hugely valuable if both the Wrendal and the Ves have spent decades wanting to covet it.
“Glory doesn’t keep you warm at night. Glory does not regrow severed limbs and heal broken bones. Seeking glory only gets those around you killed, and even if you survived to bask in it, I promise you would come to regret that sacrifice. My own glory comes from keeping those I care about alive.”
At the heart of The Last Shield is one woman’s drive to never give up, to never accept defeat and to push through any hardship with everything you have and I loved that. Johnston delves you into a ruthless, gritty world, hits you with thrilling action and offers you characters you will either root for or hate right down to their core.
ARC provided by Caroline at Angry Robot Books in exchange for an honest review- thank you for the copy! All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.