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Catalyst by Marc Johnson

Catalyst: The Passage of Hellsfire, Book 1 - Marc Johnson, Marc Johnson, Bryan Zee

Northern Shala is kept save from the monsters of the Wastelands by the Kingdom of Alexandria. But that kingdom may be in trouble. Hellsfire, a young lad in a small village, rescues Crystal, the princess of Alexandria, and earns a reward. However, he also gained the knowledge that he must now leave his sleepy little village and find a way to master his wild magic.

Hellsfire is the chosen one, but the details are all fuzzy to start with. Years ago, a mysterious man arrived in a winter storm just as Hellsfire’s mother was giving birth to him. This mysterious man is responsible for Hellsfire’s unusual name. Part of me likes the name but part of me wonders why his mom didn’t give him a nickname or even a common middle name that he could choose to go by. He’s teased and bullied constantly in the village and his odd name is just one more thing to draw unwanted attention to him.

One day, Hellsfire sees a young woman (which turns out to be Crystal) being chased by 3 armed men in the woods and he interferes. Fire launches from Hellsfire and takes out the men, which surprises everyone, especially Hellsfire. Crystal rewards him with a bag of coin. He tells his mom who takes it as a sign that he is ready to head out to the mountain where it is always winter. So, Hellsfire goes, facing down the lead bully one last time on the road out of town (hooray!). Eventually, he has to eat his horse, it’s so cold (so sad).

He finds a cave near the top of the mountain where there’s a dragon who takes great glee in chasing him about. Eventually Hellsfire runs into Stratis (an aged wizard), who is friends with the dragon. Stratis sees the potential in the lad and offers to train him. Of course, those with knowledge have to be all mystical and mysterious about it all, never telling Hellsfire why he shouldn’t do this or that and that leads to dangerous situations. Not my favorite plot device at all. On the other hand, this is where we start to get the scope of the land. Stratis gives Hellsfire a well-rounded education – potions, fire magic, hunt and seek with the dragon, book learning, languages, physical training, herbology, etc. While the info dump on how magic works is a bit tedious (Hellsfire is not a swift learner), we also get some history (which I quite enjoyed). There was a big epic wizard war perhaps a thousand years ago which did quite a bit of damage and that is why there are few wizards now and also why many people and cultures look on wizardry with suspicion.

After a significant amount of time has passed, Hellsfire must leave and he feels he must assist the Alexandrian princess. Elves and Dwarves get pulled into play, along with another wizard and at least 1 ogre. There’s some political maneuvering, daring rescues, and a worthy battle at the end.

There are few female characters until the last quarter of the book where the Dwarves come into play. Apparently the Dwarves are a bit ahead of the times and have female leaders and women guards and such. Hooray! Crystal is OK as the main female character/love interest. She does get to show off her sword skills a little in the final big battle, but she also gets knocked unconscious more than once and has to be rescued. Still, it’s mostly a boy’s tale about a boy saving the kingdom.

For a standard fantasy tale, it was still pretty entertaining. I enjoyed Hellsfire and all his anger management issues. He’s a good lad at heart and that wins over the audience no matter how many mistakes he makes. This story leaves the door open for a sequel and I expect the next book will up the epic level.

I received a copy of this audiobook at no cost from the author in exchange for an honest review (thanks!).

Narration: Bryan Zee was only OK. He didn’t have many distinct character voices; at first you can tell he’s trying but by the middle, it just all sounds like the same voice. Plus he has this nasal quality to several words in his native accent that bleeds through into every character voice. Towards the end, there were some mouth noises as well (not many) where there weren’t any for the majority of the book. Zee did do a great job of getting the character’s emotions across to the listener.