The Ant-Man of Malfen (Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf #1) is a novella that doesn’t put on any pretensions about what it is. Nope, this is a sword and sorcery extravaganza that throws you right into the action, casts you adrift in a complex world, beguiles you with twists and turns, makes you chuckle with dark humor, and never lets you get off its entertaining roller coaster ride. This story is gritty! It’s blood-soaked! Yet, somehow, it is also insightful and fun!
For those new to D.P. Prior’s world, the Nameless Dwarf is a character from his indie masterpiece Shader. In the concluding volume of that trilogy, readers are introduced to a manic-depressive dwarf who succumbed to the vile enchantment of a cursed axe, committed genocide of his own kind, and was rotting in prison for his deeds until Deacon Shader rescues him. But even painted as black as any villain, Nameless shone on the pages of The Unweaving, becoming a character of such ferocity, bravery, innate goodness, and dark humor that he instantly became a favorite of readers. And so he now has his own series!
In novella one, Nameless is desperately following the trail of the remaining dwarves, hoping to save them from the fate they are running toward. But he realizes that they won’t listen to his warning. No, he must find a way to prove to them (and himself) that he is a changed dwarf – someone who can be trusted, not feared. And so, he doggedly trails behind his people to the cusp of Qlippoth, the land of nightmares, ready to do anything to prove himself to them and save them – including confronting a horror from the ancient times of Aether (world of the dreaming, as it’s known in Shader.) The Ant-Man, as the legends name him, is a huge, half-man and half-ant creature that rules over an army of giant ants and has established himself as the brigade lord of the town of Malfen: the gateway to Qlippoth, and no one has ever returned from confronting him!
There are lots of things to love about this novella. Where to begin, where to begin.
Naturally – since this is sword and sorcery – there are battle scenes galore. Punches are thrown; noses get crunched; blades are drawn; blood is splattered; and lots of people and creatures die! And the king of this battlefield is the Nameless Dwarf, whose mighty axe wreaks havoc on his enemies even while he sings randy, dwarven songs. Of course, he basically starts most of the fights with his insults and taunting and jokes at his enemies expense, but once the combat starts, Nameless’ ass definitely pays off the checks his mouth has written.
In between the fights, Mr. Prior does some amazing characterization with Nameless, turning this genocidal murderer into a person that you not only begin to feel sympathetic for but also to like. No doubt, the scheming characters who might have had a hand in Nameless’ descent into madness help this feeling, but as so many other reviewers are fond of saying, there are no black or white characters, just real people with motives and beliefs that lead them to do horrible things. And this description fits Nameless perfectly, as he slowly becomes someone you can rout for yet still revile his past actions.
And finally, the world building of Aether, the world of the dreaming, is really amazing. In such a short novella, Mr. Prior is able to seamlessly show the depth of history and wonders of this fully realized world that was introduced in The Unweaving. Reading through this story will merely whet your appetite to learn more about this inventive and colorful world of magic, science, and gods.
While I realize that The Ant-Man of Malfen title might seem silly, I can’t express enough how entertaining this novella is. Other reviewers have compared Nameless’ adventures to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Lieber, but I can’t do that, having never read those classic stories. What I can compare it to is the Robert E. Howard Conan stories and the sword and sorcery epics of Michael Moorcock, where amazing characters swept their mighty weapons through countless hordes as they attempted to find their way in the world, thwart a vile sorcerer, or save themselves from a horrible fate. That is the type of story that The Ant-Man of Malfen is, and anyone who enjoys those types of fantasy adventures should really try this one out.