Orphan's Quest by Pat Nelson Childs is the first of three books in the Chronicles of Firma. It is a fantasy novel, as one might guess from the title and the cover, but it is not a typical fantasy novel, although it contains several fantasy clichés. However, the author does not let those clichés stand in the way of a good story, which he has told well in this book.
The hero in this book is the titular orphan, Rokey, and his quest begins with his expulsion from the monastery where he has lived since he was two. He is now seventeen and left to fend for himself with only his novice cloak and a small bag of money. Luckily, he finds companionship with a rag-tag band of mercenaries, who end up helping him find out why some unknown force of evil is determined to kill him.
At first, the mercenaries appear to be a group of adventurers drawn straight from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign: a warrior with a dark past, an elf, a Jane-of-all-trades, and a Giant. The group seems like one big cliché until the characters are fleshed out through action and dialogue. By the end of the book, for the most part, they have become individuals with depth and personality.
That is one example of how Childs begins with something that makes me question the quality of the book and then turns it into something compelling. Terry Pratchett was once asked to describe the underlying message of his work, and he replied that the underlying message of page one is to turn to page two, and so on. Childs seems to have that same message, although there are many others as well. Whenever the dialogue seemed a little off, or the choices of the characters seemed a little, well, out of character, he quickly moves on to something that regains my attention and makes me want to read on.
Another thing that makes this book stand out among the multitudes of adventure/quest/fantasy books is that Rokey is gay, and so is the elf, Flaskamper. In the world of Firma, most cultures are fairly open and accepting of anyone's sexuality, so this is treated (somewhat too blatantly) as a non-issue. Occasionally I felt as though Childs might be preaching to the choir, but for the most part, Rokey's and Flaskamper's sexuality is not the focus of the story.
The mini-arc of this book came to a satisfactory conclusion, but there are still many questions left unanswered. I was surprised to realize that as I closed the book, I was wishing that I had waited to read it until the other two were published so that I would not have to wait so long to find out what happens next. Childs has inserted enough foreshadowing to indicate that he knows where the story is going, and this book is written well enough for me to want to read the rest.
I recommend this book to fantasy fans who are interested in a book that will surprise the reader with the occasional unanticipated plot twist or characterization. It is an unexpectedly well-written first novel and the author shows tremendous promise.