Friday, February 18, 2022

"Assault on Devil's Den" by Eric Balch--Fiction Review

We’re on a road trip to hell today, Obscurists—or, well, hell adjacent. In any case, today’s book is Eric Balch’s “Assault on Devil’s Den,” a sword and sorcery hack and slash fantasy adventure.

Eric Balch

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This will come as a complete shock, but I’ve been known to play a little Dungeons and Dragons here and there—nearly every week. So, “Assault on Devil’s Den,” which reads exactly like the setup and execution of a D&D campaign, is right up my alley. I love the adventuring, the sword and sorcery aspect, and generally the whole aesthetic. It’s important to note that“Assault on Devil’s Den” is like D&D in many ways, but it isn’t officially a D&D book, and it very much does its own thing with its own lore.

One of the things I really liked about this novel is how Balch dealt with one of the queasier aspects of old D&D, which is how it dealt with race. Spoilers it didn’t do it well. The central problem is in any Dungeons and Dragon’s setting, a lot like Tolkien’s Middle Earth setting, there are various intelligent races other than humans, like elves, dwarves, orcs, and so on. That in itself isn’t bad, but, both in Tolkien’s fantasy world and the game inspired by it, there is also the conceit that there are goodly races and not so goodly races—which is a fictional form of racism. Balch eschews all of that in his novel. There are plenty of trolls, orcs, and goblins who aren’t evil because of genetics. In his fantasy world, whether a person is good or evil depends largely on individual personal character traits, not inherited by race, you know, like the real world. There are even examples of demons who aren’t evil just because they’re born a demon.

Also, as a fan of a good old-fashioned fantasy dust-em-up, that last fight at the end of this book was a real knock-down-drag-out fight that the story had been building the entire novel. After the wait of nearly the whole book, I found it very satisfying.

What I don’t love about this book:

It is exactly like reading a D&D campaign setting. I know, I just praised this, and I pulled a somewhat similar trick in a review recently about another independent author. Part of the problem this time around is how involved Balch gets into his world-building. A story device I’ve become less and less enchanted with the more books I read. Suppose story should be primary, followed then by characterization. In that case, world-building is third in elements—maybe—but when it’s the primary element of a book, you get into odd moments where you know more about things and places in a story than the people going to those places to retrieve those things. 

For instance, a whole aside in this story takes place at a blacksmith’s shop in a town where the heroes buy new equipment. It’s lovingly rendered down to such fine detail of how much the equipment costs, how long it will take to create, the materials used, et cetera, et cetera. How much does this impact the narrative? Very little. The time and words could have been used to develop the characters more through interaction, or maybe we could have got more background on them with insight into why they are who they are. 

The thing that grounded on me the most, though, was the combat dialogue. There are rarely any good conversations during a pitched battle for nearly exactly the same reason there are seldom any good interviews with players immediately post-football game. The same things get said—a lot. Balch’s word is “impressive” or “impressed,” and it happens in nearly every fight scene if not all of them—there are also a lot of “final form(s)” and “you have no chance(s).”

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Author’s Website:

***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Pelagius, an old adventurer, sits despondently in a tavern with his best friend, a bird person hybrid, and a powerful sorcerer named Bojan. Why Pelagius is despondent is because after a long adventuring career, he fears he’s lost his mojo after freezing up in a fight, and it might be time to hang up the old adventurer cloak. Bojan tries to cheer him up and shake him from his melancholy but what really snaps Pelagius back is the town he and his friend are resting in gets attacked by some notorious soul hunters led by a green-eyed man.

This is just the excuse Pelagius needed to launch into yet another quest to stop the soul hunters—but Pelagius and Bojan know that the green-eyed man and his ilk are really just the symptom of a more significant problem. They only collect souls to feed their master, a demon named Babu who rules Devil’s Den. 

So Pelagius and Bojan decided to get a new band back together—er, I mean a new adventuring party together to end Babu and his reign of terror. The green-eyed man, however, will do whatever he needs to make sure Pelagius and Bojan don’t ever make it to “Devil’s Den.” Including literally digging up Pelagius and Bojan’s old nemesis trapped in a tomb.

The two heroes end up fighting their old foe many times on the road, while they recruit other heroes along the way who also have a score to settle with Babu. Eventually, though, in one such contest, through guile more than anything, Bojan is killed. Pelagius soon after avenges his fallen friend and leads the remaining heroes all the way to Devil’s Den.

Initially, when first assaulting the demon’s fortress, the heroes are all split up from each other, with Pelagius confronting the demon lord and his lieutenant alone. Pelagius, in dire straits, manages to keep the desperate battle going long enough until his allies can catch up and support him in their final showdown with Babu.

The cost of the fight is steep. Not all of the heroes survive, and all that do are grievously injured. In the end, though, Babu is slain, and a new, possibly more terrible ruler takes over the dominion of Devil’s Den. Pelagius and his remaining adventurers are allowed to leave.

Possibly hinting at things to come, shortly after, the green-eyed man, who was unsuccessful in preventing Pelagius and company from assaulting Devil’s Den, returns to the fortress with his companions, at the behest of new management. Management, who despises the green-eyed man.


“Assault on Devil’s Den” is written in that present tense, active voice style that seemed to be all the rage with writing advice blogs for a while; it still might be, I’m unsure. To be honest, it always takes me a bit longer to get into the flow of a story when this is the case, but “The Hunger Games” did it with great success, so who am I to criticize? Though I think the present tense fits better when it’s done from a first-person perspective, again, that’s an opinion. I didn’t mention this above because when it boils down to it, I just don’t really care about talking about tense all that much. Ultimately, what I care about is the story. It’s like as a painter, I wouldn’t actually value the brushes all that much, but the painting. 

Understand them? Sure. You need to understand your tools, but still, it’s all about the art being produced in the end.

Story-wise, “Assault on Devil’s Den” is a straightforward affair—the heroes become aware of an evil baddie in need of stopping, and the rest of the plot moves us steadily toward that conflict—eventually. The thing with this story is from the characters to the places and the items, there is a lot of stuff packed in, but all with a fuzzy focus.

The focus issue isn’t universal, though. When Balch choreographs a fight, it’s typically bombastic and clear.

That clarity doesn’t translate over into his character work. The characters are all good enough and certainly have interesting character quirks about them, but they’re not developed beyond a surface-level sketch. Part of this again is there are a lot of them.

Parting thoughts:

This may seem an odd tangent here, but after watching Marvel’s “Eternals,” a concept I call the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles limit,” crystallized in my mind. The idea is simple, for a first-time out sort of story, you can only effectively develop 4 maybe 5 main characters. It doesn’t matter how well designed, or cooky, or quirky, or engaging in theory they are; once you get beyond that limit, focus issues degrade their development.

Now you might think, surely, Kevin, this is unfair and unfounded. If I want 19 principal characters in my novel, I can pull it off because of the length of the medium. After all, look at “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

First off, thank you, imaginary debate partner. Second, George R.R. Martin had the benefit of being an experienced genius. But still, did you know that in his first novel in that series, “A Game of Thrones,” he only had three perspective characters that made it to double-digit chapter numbers? They were Eddard Stark, Catelyn Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen—in case you were wondering. If you add the next two most featured POV characters bringing us up to 5, you get Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, with 9 chapters each. 

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