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Book Review: The Hickory Staff by Robert Scott & Jay Gordon

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Well I’ve done it again. I’ve got myself hooked on a new series. Why is it that every time I discover a new author I like he, or in this case they, has to be working on at least a trilogy. Maybe those folks who know they have a long time to develop their plots are able to write with a more carefree attitude. What ever the reason I’m now hooked on The Eldarn Sequence

In the first book The Hickory Staff the two authors Robert Scott and Jay Gordon have got their hooks into me and unless they really screw up in the second book, I’m theirs until they’ve finished. It’s not that they’ve discovered something new under the sun, it’s the fact that they’ve been able to take a familiar theme and give it new life and depth that makes this book, and hopefully the series, such a good read.

It’s the standard other world type story, where people from our world accidentally cross over, and find that they have a role to play in preventing a horrible evil from destroying all the worlds. Yep, been there, done that, bought one too many t-shirts and seen the movie in its special tenth anniversary boxed set, would be my reaction too if it wasn’t for the fact that the two authors have managed make it seem like no one has ever written this type of story before.

I was on a trawling expedition through my local large chain bookstore when I found The Hickory Staff. It was the cover that caught my eye and the title. Simple sepia toned background with a line drawing of a tree, and scripted characters for the title and the author’s names: nothing flashy but evocative. I know that authors usually have no control over a book’s cover art, but I couldn’t help feeling that any work that felt secure enough to package itself plainly deserved a look.

The first thing you’ll notice differing from other books of this type is that it diverges from the typical formula almost immediately. Instead of the action building on our world with the main characters sliding into the alternative one, the scene shifts continually between the earth and Eldarn.

The authors give us the details that the characters from earth are going to have to understand when they get to their eventual destination. The situation in Eldarn and the characters we will meet there are as familiar to us from the start as the people in our own world. While Steven Taylor and Mark Jenkins from Idaho Springs Colorado are still the main characters, they are only cogs in the larger story of the ongoing history of Eldarn.

Once we are in Eldarn and certain other facts come to life the idea of alternate worlds is ever so slightly turned on its head. Earth and Eldarn: which is the central world? There has been more traffic from Eldarn to Earth over the years than the other way round. With only Steven, Mark, and Steven’s girl friend Hannah, ever having fallen into Eldarn, while planned trips in reverse seem to have happened more than a few times in the past, Earth becomes less the centre of the universe than is usual in these types of stories.

The differences between the two worlds lie in the fact that on Eldarn magic is a viable force, where as on earth technology has risen to the forefront. In fact it is the corrupted magic of one sorcerer that has retarded the growth of Eldarn. It’s the usual story of power, corruption, and unspeakable evil, where one man Nerak, trying to tap an ancient source of power released an evil that drove him insane.

Using his newfound powers he carefully eliminated the ruling families of all the countries of Eldarn, and all but two of his fellow wizards, until he was able to claim absolute dominion over the world. But the ultimate goal of the evil that possesses him is to obtain the “key” that will unlock the magic needed to release the power that will decimate all the worlds.

The key happened to end up in a safety deposit box in the bank where Steven Taylor is assistant manager. Steven is one of those guys who epitomises the saying he who hesitates is lost. He lost out on all the good jobs when he graduated from collage by dithering, and so ended up in Idaho Springs as assistant manager in a small bank.

Even when he meets Hannah, who he instantly falls in love with, if it wasn’t for her being willing to risk taking the initiative, their relationship would never have started. Perhaps his confidence is boosted by her interest, or perhaps something else is pushing events, but whatever it is, when he discovers a one hundred and thirty odd year old safety deposit box in the basement of the bank, he decides he must find out what’s inside of it.

One Friday night he secrets the box in his briefcase and takes it home. He and his room mate Mark open the box to discover that it contains a strange rock and a tapestry. They lay the tapestry out flat on the floor. When they notice a current of energy running through the room they assume that the rock could be radioactive. They decide to vacate the apartment to seek assistance in dealing with the dangerous rock. Steven leaves the room and Mark trips and falls into the tapestry.

The tapestry is the portal. Steven finally figures out where Mark has vanished to and is horrified. He’s frozen with fear. What can he do? He spends the rest of the night berating himself for being a coward, and finally as dawn breaks he works up the nerve and jumps through the portal to try and find Mark.

Eldran with its magic and immediate threats forces Steven to finally confront himself. He has been chosen by someone or something to wield an instrument of power: the hickory staff of the title, and be the main opponent to Nerak. He must find a way to remain true to himself but be strong enough to confront the variety of enemies and challenges this strange and wild world throws at him.

A key element in the success of this book is the strength and variety of the characters. The writers have done a masterful job in creating a diverse group of peoples with a myriad of motivations for why they do what they do. Even spirits and soulless warriors are allowed to show that they have the potential for more than one dimension.

At various times in The Hickory Staff we switch from one group of characters to another, and each time are rewarded with a different perspective of the land and the trials its people have endured. When Steven’s girl friend Hannah stumbles through the portal, it’s a day after the guys, and so she ends up in a different part of the world.

She is eventually befriended by people who are searching for a means to end the rule of Nerak, and learns more about the seemingly insurmountable task facing all of those who oppose him. When Steven and Mark had landed, they had been picked up by members of the resistance, whose first instinct is to kill them. Anyone dressed as strangely as the two men were must be dangerous.

In both instances the strangers are taken to meet someone who supposedly will be able to help them return to their own world. Not surprisingly they turn out to be the two wizards that survived Nerak’s killing spree the first time round. It just so happens that they are in completely separate parts of the world, and by the end of the first book Steven and Hannah have yet to be reunited. In fact Steven has had to go back to Colorado to retrieve the “key”(remember that rock) from his apartment before Nerak beats him to it.

Unless Steven manages to retrieve the key, and return with it, not only will nobody else be coming home anytime soon, but there might not be any worlds anywhere for anyone.

Robert Scott and Jay Gordon have written a tantalizing opening volume to what promises to be an exciting sequence of books. Although there is an underlying threat of action through out the book, it is not dominated by action scenes. The Hickory Staff is far more than just sword and sorcery and this alone would raise it above so many books who attempt the alternate world scenario.

What really sets apart are the range and depth of the characters. We learn about all of them naturally; either through their own eyes, or through others’ perceptions of them. You find yourself caring about what happens to these people much more than you would normally in most fiction. The Hickory Staff is a book well worth reading, and what’s even better is that you know there’s more of the same still to come.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.