I keep wanting to say that Lawrence Watt-Evans is merely a competent writer and nothing more, but it’s getting hard to do that. Lawrence Watt-Evans’ With a Single Spell, the second novel of his Ethshar series, is consistently better than it needs to be. From every cover indication, this is a minor work of light fluffy fantasy, but (like the first Ethshar book, The Misenchanted Sword) the book delivers more than the cover promises.
Our Hero is an apprentice wizard whose master has just met an untimely demise, a situation particularly problematic in that he’d only taught his apprentice one spell of limited utility. The apprentice now faces a rather hostile world with no obvious means to support himself, so he leaves his little village for parts unknown. What follows is a plot that’s not especially novel, but never feels cheaply derivative.
Watt-Evans’ biggest strength here is the world-building. Both the little village and the parts unknown feel non-generic. There’s a solidity to Ethshar; it has that same over-developed feel that Tolkien’s Middle-Earth had—there are little mysterious, unexplained bits to the world such that you suspect it of a real history rather than a sterile imagining. Onto this, Watt-Evans layers writing that can be described as competent (which I don’t mean as an insult: if he’s not a stunning prose stylist, then neither do his stylistic tics make themselves obtrusive; this is the sort of transparent prose that never detracts from a story), well-paced plotting, and a genuine sense of discovery.
There are no deeply emotional moments, no paragraphs that make you take an indrawn breath; but there is a sustained level of goodness—enough to keep me up all night and not feel bad about having done so in the morning. This is quality light fantasy, a genre always in short supply on my bookshelves, and I’ve just ordered the rest of the series from Amazon.