"The Wordsmiths and the Warguild" begins with the classic scenario of a father forcing an innocent child into an unwanted marriage. Slerma, daughter of the King of Sung, is betrothed to Togura, son of a wealthy and powerful baron. The twist is that it's Togura who's desperate to escape the marriage, as the princess is monstrously fat and ugly, as well as obscene and agressive. Going on the lam, Togura manages to land what looks liek a cushy position as monster-slayer for the wordsmiths, but more unfortunate events unfold and Togura is on the run across the continent.
One might view most of the story elements in this book as classis fantasy. Hugh Cook sets himself apart in two ways. First, he has attitude. "The Wordsmiths and the Warguild" is ribald, funny, gleefully offensive and at times almost abusive to its hero, who just can't catch a break. Moreover, Cook has inverted the standard fantasy hero. Togura is neither particularly strong nor smart nor brave. When danger emerges, he screams and runs away if he can. Even his loyalty to his true love wavers at times. In a strange way, though, these flaws make him more likable than standard fantasy drones, and you'll be cheering for him all the louder by the end of the book.
Adding to the flavor of the book is a surprising attachment to grit and realism. These qualities seem largely to have been abandoned by most of today's fantasy authors. Hugh Cook evidently did his homework; "The Wordsmiths and the Warguild" keenly brings up a number of the harsher realities of mideival life, such as:
1. There was not always a road or trail leading from point A to point B. Even when there is a trail it could be overgrown, or washed away by bad weather. Travel was extremely difficult and often dangerous.
2. Sickness and injury. There was no hospitals during the Middle Ages, no doctors, and few medicines. Plagues and epidemics were common. If you were ill or hurt, you might well simply be abandoned to die. If you did manage to survive, recoveries were generally long and painful.
3. Food. Ever find it amazing that some fantasy heroes can carry enough food for a six-month quest? In "The Wordsmiths and the Warguild", food is often scarce. You cannot simply go into the woods and hunt or gather up dinner. Cook is brutally honest about the effects of starvation, and that, in fact, makes some of the book's most effective scenes.
4. Sex. Yes, sex exists in this book. Togura goes through as much sexual embarrassment as any teenage male, as he stumbles through several awkward moments.
No one will ever accuse Hugh Cook of literary brilliance. But despite his undeniable pulp qualities, "The Wordsmiths and the Warguild" is readable, entertaining and at times strangely compelling. Hugh Cook stands out for his observation that the mideival world was harsh, cruel, and frequently very painful. He is obviously driving at a belief that most of the human race is selfish and small-minded. But (with one unfortunate exception) he never delves into political lectures or monologing. Thus I give this book a whole-hearted recommendation. If you're getting tired of the piles and bland and syrupy drivel on bookstore shelves (and I'm not pointing any fingers, but two authors with first name 'Terry' are surfacing in my mind), this might be just the cure for what ails you.