Tuesday, August 19, 2003

'Swords' forged by real-life drama


Witty fantasy published more than two decades after author's death

By Jeff Suess
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two of the most unlikely heroes you'll ever meet, the book says. That's the subtitle to Swords for Hire by Will Allen.

While the desciption is intended for the two heroes of the novel, the same could be said of the two men behind the scenes.

Brothers Paul and Will Allen grew up in Kettering, just two years apart. The book's origin, though, spans more than 20 years.

In spring 1978, Will was diagnosed with melanoma. He was a student at Ohio University and hoped to be a teacher. He also loved to write.

"I don't think a day went by when he didn't create five or more things," says his widow, Annie Strand.

He fought the cancer for two years. Knowing his condition was terminal, Will married his high school sweetheart in September 1979.

That fall he sat down to write Swords for Hire and gave out a handful of copies to friends and family. The book is a humorous fantasy adventure for all ages inspired by William Goldman's The Princess Bride. Four months later, Will died, three weeks before his 23rd birthday.

Swords for Hire was published 23 years later.

The good reviews aren't just because of sympathy. It's a great book. And a funny one.

This fairy tale/fantasy has all the classic archetypes: Brave heroes, a maiden in distress, a scary villain and an evil king who puts worms on his head.

We first meet King Olive, the much-loved ruler of Parmall, in a dark cell where his treacherous lout of a brother, Boonder, had him imprisoned by the dreaded Boneman. But Boonder is an ineffectual leader who would rather indulge in his worm fetish.

Meanwhile, a farm boy named Sam Hatcher goes to join the Royal Guard, the best warriors in the kingdom. His lack of military training gets him sent to apprentice with Rigby Skeet, an eccentric sword for hire always on the lookout for a quest.

Inevitably Sam and Rigby find a quest, or a quest finds them, and they go to free King Olive, face the Boneman, and rescue the maiden Melinda from King Boonder.

But the book is far from predictable. Will uses many traditional elements - evil guards, a foreboding sorcerer, a fight against insurmountable odds - and twists them in fresh and clever ways. Like when they are surrounded by guards: " 'Okay,' Rigby said to Sam, 'I'll take the one on the left, and you handle the rest of them.' "

Swords for Hire is a quick read, with short chapters and a fast pace. All the characters are delightful, even the icky villains (I'm not sure which is worse, the Boneman's see-through skin or that worm thing).

Swords for Hire was chosen No. 2 in the American Booksellers Association's Science Fiction and Fantasy Top Ten for Fall 2003.

There are other local connections: Kettering's Nancy Cartwright (voice of TV's Bart Simpson) wrote the foreword, and Cincinnati comic book artist David Michael Beck did the illustrations. Beck used the family as models for the cover - that's Will as Sam, Paul as Rigby, and Annie as Melinda.

Paul hopes to publish some of Will's other works. Even though Will had wanted to be a teacher, his brother figures that if he lived "he'd be an author or work in movies or all of those things."

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Email jsuess@enquirer.com




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