Goodreadings: The Ballad of Sir Benfro

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Goodreadings: The Ballad of Sir Benfro

You should never judge a book by its cover. My copy of Dreamwalker, however, I bought almost purely based on it gorgeous cover… Well, it was that, and my sense of nostalgia for fantasy books during my university literary minors. There wasn’t a lot of room for dragons, witches and the like there, and that made me very sad.

Despite my already big collection of unread books, I bought the first instalment of a fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro by by J.D. Oswald, of which I knew nothing, except that it looked pretty. And fantasy-y.

But it wasn’t a standard linear fantasy adventure book, that’s for sure. Dreamwalker did itself some great favours by building up a vast world very quickly. At the same time, that unsurprisingly led to some problems, too.

Complex structure

Dreamwalker is written in a first-person narrative, which switches between various characters. This happens a lot in fantasy; take the Song of Ice and Fire for example. However, these switches were not always contained within chapters. Perspective switched between completely different characters and situations within the same chapter quite often making it quite difficult to follow.

The world and magical system was initially vague but very interesting, with dragons having somehow degenerated from the mighty flying firebreathing beasts we usually think of. Along the series, the reasons for this shift are slowly explored. Throughout the first book, though, you have to make do with what you get, information-wise. The magical ‘system’ is based on the concept of leylines; a complex rhizomatic web of life-energy which flows through every living thing. They’re sometimes referred to ‘the lines’, but mainly called the Llinellau Grym, the Llinellau or the Grym. Which leads me to the next point I want to make about this book.

Names and confusion

The names in Dreamwalker are complex. Again, this happens in fantasy all the time. But. This specific series borrowed a lot from Welsh folklore, whose language is notoriously difficult to pronounce and understand. The in-world explanation for this is that the dragon language Draigaith uses different vowels and such, since their snout is shaped so differently to human mouths and faces. Cool.

Sadly, though, I’m still human, which led to me having just as much difficulty with these names as the humans in the books. Whenever I read names like Meirrionydd and Morgwm, I only recognize the shape of the name instead of actually reading it. Even though these characters were written quite sympathetically, it made it a bit hard to connect with them. Not that I have anything against Wales or Welsh; it’s just difficult to imagine what those names should actually sound like, is all.

Poor boys

Oh, those poor, poor boys. The two main characters of The Ballad of Sir Benfro really do not understand anything that is going on around them. They both start out as young kids, out of control of their situations, who know nothing of the power they might possess. They also fall unconscious a lot.

A lot.

That makes it difficult to follow where the story is headed. Add to that the fact that the two factions in this book simply cal the same thing by different names and you have a lot of attention-paying to do in Dreamwalker. Though I think it is really cool that Oswald made differences in culture apparent this way.

And yet…

Despite all that made Dreamwalker a bit dodgy, I couldn’t put it down. The characters on both sides of the story are interestingly written and dare to stray from the stereotypes now and then. It was only at the end of the first book that things started to kick off, though. It felt mostly as the setup for the rest of the series.

The second book, The Rose Cord, was much better than the first. The improvement in general writing and pacing was great to see. Still, Benfro’s situation made it so that it was hard to understand what happened to him most of the time (partly because he didn’t understand that himself). Some of the stuff that happened in The Rose Cord is framed and somewhat explained only halfway through the next book: The Golden Cage. You could call that retconning; changing elements of your story after it’s already happened, a kind of ‘cheating’ within writing. But thanks to these unknowing protagonists, it is somewhat understandable that they only get a grip on events afterwards.

A long buildup to a lot of fun

Oswald actually handicapped himself by wanting to show everything at once. All elements of this fantasy world are cool, but their introduction is paced awkwardly. The little touches like the snippets of worldbuilding at the beginning of each chapter start to pay off more later on as well. They connect things together for the reader before the story gets there, which is a great way of teasing your audience into wanting more. This man really likes his worldbuilding.

I’m really churning through them now, and enjoying them more with every page I read. These books are about discovery, a new generation stepping up and not knowing stuff yet. Honestly, I’d have to compliment the author for installing the main characters’ feelings of confusion and wonder into the reader. And the satisfaction of finding out how something worked afterward is immense, I have to say. The struggles of our characters might never be over, but you really get to watch them grow up and change.

The whole series consists of five books. Doesn’t that make you long for a nice readathon?

Prepare to dive deep

I would only recommend this series if you were actually prepared to read the whole series. Dreamwalker in itself is nowhere near my best-of list, but the The Ballad of Sir Benfro as a whole is garnering a special place in my heart.

I’ll probably get back to this once I’ve finished the series and tell you my final thoughts. In the meantime, have you ever had this experience of a series getting so much better that it made the earlier instalments worth it? Let me know!