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Hel's Crucible Duology:
Into the Forge, Into the Fire

Dennis L. McKiernan
Roc Books, 410 and 472 pages

Art: Ciruelo Cabral
Into the Forge
Into the Fire
Dennis L. McKiernan
Dennis L. McKiernan was born in 1932 in Moberly Missouri. He lived there until age eighteen when he joined the U.S. Air Force, serving four years during the Korean War. He received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Missouri in 1958 and, similarly, an M.S. from Duke University in 1964. Employed at a R&D laboratory, he lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio. He began writing novels in 1977 while recuperating from a car accident. His novels include the trilogy of The Iron Tower, the duology of The Silver Call, and Dragondoom.

Dennis L. McKiernan Website
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Dennis L. McKiernan Tribute Site
Dennis L. McKiernan Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Todd Richmond

Hel's Crucible Duology (made up of Into the Forge and Into the Fire) tells the story of a great war between good and evil, told through two Warrows, Tipperton Thistledown and Beau Darby, who get caught up in a grand adventure. Tip awakens one winter night to find a battle raging at his mill in the small village of Twoforks. When the battle ends, Tip discovers a wounded human soldier, the only survivor. Before he dies, he gives Tip a token, a small, plain coin with a hole in it, and the following message: "Go east...warn all...take this to Agron." Tip is unsure what to do at first, since no one in Twoforks has ever heard of Agron, or even knows if Agron is a person or a place. Soon, however, it becomes clear that evil has begun invading their quiet homes. Villages are destroyed by hoards of evil creatures. Tip decides to head east with his good friend Beau, determined to find Agron. Two common Warrows (a small race like hobbits or halflings), one a miller and the other a healer, set out on what will turn out to be a very long journey, both in time and distance. Within a week they enter the Drearwood, a forbidding forest with a deadly reputation. On their very first night in the forest they catch sight of a Horde of Foul Folk, thousands of Rûcks, Hlôks, Ogrus, and Ghûlka. Narrow escapes and a rescue by a group of Lian Guardians (Elven warriors) lead them to Arden Vale until the spring thaw.

While with the Elves, Tip and Beau discover what is happening. An evil mage, Modru of Gron has started a terrible war of conquest, attempting to conquer the entire plane of Mithgar. To do so, would allow Modru's master, Gyphon, to displace Adon as the master of all creation. To stop Modru, the High King Blaine has called for an alliance of men, Elves, Dwarves and Mages to fight him. Tip and Beau are more determined than ever to deliver their coin. Upon their departure, an Elven seeress has a vision: "Seek the aid of those not men to quench the fires of war..." But who is it for?

Accompanied by a pair of Elves and later joined by a Dwarf, Tip and Beau make their way. As they travel they see the horrors of the spreading war, finding entire villages and cities that have been destroyed by the Hordes of Foul Folk. Along the way, Tip and Beau become skilled warriors and more knowledgeable about the world around them. When they finally make their goal, they discover that it is besieged, and they must seek the aid of the Dwarves to break the siege.

There are a couple of common themes in the book, both of them pointed out by the author in the foreword. One of the themes is about common people thrust into uncommon situations and struggling to meet the challenge. The other is about how all things are connected, that nothing happens without having some consequence on other events. For all of McKiernan's talk of common people thrust into uncommon situations, though, Tipperton and Beau quickly become uncommon, special people. They hold council with kings and princes and do some pretty remarkable things as part of the war effort. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a story if McKiernan merely followed the exploits of two common foot soldiers that end up dying on the battlefield like so many warriors.

As for the other theme, I think most people recognize that few actions are without consequences, and that the smallest events can somehow affect major events. "For want of a nail ..." McKiernan has a bit of fun with this as Beau contemplates this principle on more than one occasion.

The trouble is, there is nothing special about these themes, or for that matter, these books. As I read, I was struck by the similarity to Tolkien. Two Warrows versus two hobbits; deliver a coin versus destroy a ring; both aided by Elves. Like Tip and Beau, Frodo and Bilbo were just common hobbits who got caught up in grand events. Both stories have Dwarves, Elves, orcs and wizards. Anyone who thinks all high fantasy written after Tolkien is derivative of hid work will most likely not enjoy Hel's Crucible. I've read many books that have born more than a passing similarity to Lord of the Rings, but Hel's Crucible is one the worst (best?). After finishing the two books in this series, I came to the conclusion that if you've read Lord of the Rings, there is not much point in reading these two. And if you haven't read Tolkien, then you should read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series.

Another problem I noticed is that despite the fact that Tip and Beau are adults, the characters act and are treated like children. Both Tip and Beau live alone, have professions that they have pursued for years, and yet they show a remarkable lack of knowledge about life and the world around them. Some of it can no doubt be explained by the fact that they live in a small village, but the rest, well, treat them as adults or treat them as children, but make a decision and stick with it.

That's not to say that Hel's Crucible is not without some appeal. This duology is only a small part of McKiernan's work, a small slice of the narratives of Mithgar. I haven't read McKiernan's other books, but it's clear that the world of Mithgar is rich and complex. The writing is good, the characters are more than just one-dimensional stereotypes, and the narrative flows along smoothly albeit slowly at times. As part of the entire Mithgar series, Hel's Crucible is likely a welcome addition. But there are so many other books on the market with the "hero(s) on a quest" theme, that if there isn't something special about the story, it wears a bit thin. And I'm afraid that I couldn't find that extra appeal in these books.

Copyright © 1998 by Todd Richmond

Todd is a plant molecular developmental biologist who has finally finished 23 years of formal education. He recently fled Madison, WI for the warmer but damper San Francisco Bay Area and likes bad movies, good science fiction, and role-playing games. He began reading science fiction at the age of eight, starting with Heinlein, Silverberg, and Tom Swift books, and has a great fondness for tongue-in-cheek fantasy Óla Terry Pratchett, Craig Shaw Gardner and Robert Asprin.

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