M.L. Forman’s 5-book series, Adventurers Wanted, is a wonderful and fantastical journey, in the true sense of those words. What at first seems like a simple, perhaps even naïve, tale of a boy discovering a new life surprises the reader as it gradually delves deeper into the nuances of honor and responsibility, courage and cowardice, and many other aspects of human nature.
We enter the story, Slathbog’s Gold, as Alex Taylor, a fairly typical teenage boy, finds himself applying for a position as “adventurer” in a book shop whose advertisement had intrigued him. Before he knows what has happened, Alex is introduced to other members of a party of adventurers and hears words like “magic” and “dragon” discussed as if they were everyday affairs. Despite some misgivings, Alex also feels a spark of excitement and sees that he has a fleeting opportunity—one that he would regret passing up—and joins the adventurers’ party.
The world he enters through the “back door” of that inauspicious shop is a world unlike his own. For a time, the story progresses in a manner that any D&D player can appreciate. Alex meets the rest of his group, is outfitted for the trip with items he could never imagine, and discovers what abilities he has…or may have in time. Slathbog, the evil dragon whom they are honor-bound to kill by the rules of their newly-contracted adventure, sits heavily on Alex’s mind. However, the realization that months will pass before ever encountering him, soon allows Alex to enjoy the camaraderie of the group.
In particular, Alex discovers two gifts: magic and humility. From early in the outfitting process, Alex learns that he has the “measurements” to be a wizard—a surprising revelation for him and perhaps even more so for the other, experienced adventurers who know how rare this gift is. At the same time, he is equally eager to learn about the code of honor of the adventurer. His introspection cultivates an awareness of his own struggles and shortcomings so that he is careful to deflect praise and give credit to others. This struggle becomes difficult early on because of his ability to aid the group far beyond his limited experience.
By apparent good fortune, the sword he purchases at the beginning of his adventuring turns out to be magical. (We later learn that this sword, whose magic dates back to an ancient race of elves, could equally be thought of as choosing him.) With the help of this sword and some simple, but clever, magic, he defeats a troll and later some bandits. This sword is also essential in fighting off some wraiths haunting a ruin. In this case, however, we see that there is more to Alex than simple luck. Here, his honor and goodness are victorious as he is tempted by these wraiths to slay his friends and follow the wraiths to obtain true greatness. This climactic moment makes clear to the reader that Alex may be as praiseworthy as his comrades have already claimed.
Certain other events also help to paint the picture of Alex’s strong character and great potential. Before their encounters with bandits or wraiths, the party visits the Oracle of the White Tower. In their meeting, the oracle reveals to Alex that he “has the power of a true wizard in him” (p. 142). She later gives Alex advice that fits very well with what we have been shown of his character: “Doubts may check pride, but too much doubt will keep you from doing what must be done” (p. 157).
Finally, in the dramatic events surrounding the battle against Slathbog, the reader—and Alex himself—learn just how much magic Alex possesses. Furthermore, he demonstrates his wisdom and skill at healing when one of the group is mortally wounded. Now there can be no doubt of his exceptional ability.
The Horn of Moran
The second book, The Horn of Moran, follows a similar track to the first as Alex joins another adventuring group. However, his new company has far less peace than his old. The encounter Alex had with the wraiths in the first book was just a foreshadowing of the nefarious evil creeping along the edges of the story as the group seeks to return the titular horn to the rightful king of Alusia before war breaks out.
We continue to see Alex developing his skills as a wizard and healer. In particular, he shows great strength of will in calling people back “from the wall”—the point of crossover from life to death that he had already traveled to in Book One. The other side of the wall has an allure for any person that encounters it and it is therefore as perilous to the “healer” as it is for the dying person to go near. The fact that Alex is able to make this effort on more than one occasion signifies how far his power is advancing.
The theme of honor plays an increasingly important role as more characters struggle with, or capitulate to, their flaws. Vengeance, cowardice, meanness, greed. At one dramatic moment the leader of the adventures of the first two books, Silvan Bregnest, corrects one of the party in this way: “Words are what make a man. What is honor…it is saying you will do something and then doing it. Honor is keeping your word…” (p. 172). Later, in the passion of battle, a character is about to kill some bandits in the act of surrendering. He is stopped but responds with doubt that the bandits would have shown mercy on their part. The response is: “But they have no honor, and we do” (p. 299).
In a final important exposition, we are shown by Whalen Vankin, the great wizard who has taken Alex as his apprentice, the four great wizard acts that Alex has achieved to make him worthy to take the wizard oath. These four acts, and a few others that Whalen highlights, are from Taylor’s two adventures. Alex, in his turn, demonstrates his humility again through his incredulity at the “greatness” of these acts and his own ability.
Albrek’s Tomb, the third in the series, begins with another straight-forward organizing of an adventure. The process, by now, is familiar to the reader: Mr. Clutter’s adventure shop; the leader of the group interviewing the potential candidates; laying out the terms of compensation in treasure, etc. This time the goal is to find a magical ring, the Ring of Searching, used by the dwarves to aid in finding mines. The leader of the adventure is a dwarf named Thrang who was introduced in Book One. He explains that Albrek, a great dwarf lord, had left his homeland two thousand years before (ten generations among dwarves) to find new mines. He never returned and so the search is centered around the places research shows were planned destinations in his mission.
At the first of these, The Isle of Bones, a pivotal event occurs. Alex discovers on the island, hidden deep under the ruins of the mining village that had been built up, a sleeping dragon of immense power. The dragon reveals himself to Alex in his dreams and later meets face-to-face with Alex. He is an ancient, good dragon who had chosen to hide from the world to “rest and dream”. He was awakened suddenly by the dwarves and attacked. In his heated reaction, he destroyed them.
This information is not the greatest of the dragon’s revelations. First, Alex is entrusted by the dragon with his true name—Salinor—which gives him power over the dragon. Taylor is now a “dragon-lord”. Salinor goes on to tell Alex that he has dragon blood in him and that he has the power to take the form of the dragon without losing himself as most wizards would—Alex is both man and dragon. Hints of this power appeared in the earlier books. In the second book, Alex had conjured a dragon illusion to frighten some enemies. And, even in the first book, the Oracle had revealed to Alex that he is of mixed race. At the end of his face-to-face conference with the dragon, Alex agrees to use his power to cast a spell over the island hiding it completely from the world.
The group continues the quest to find the Ring of Searching (Albrek had left the island before the mining of the dwarves had disturbed Salinor) and encounters both small and great obstacles to its completion. Alex continues to show himself wise beyond his years both in dealing with foes and friends alike. Of particular importance, he is literally the vehicle that brings his new friend, a seer named Kat who is part of their party, to fulfill the prophecy of the Empty Tower thus allowing her to become the Oracle of the Empty Tower.
The quest later leads them through the cursed city of Neplee which has been beset with fear ever since a great necromancer came to power in the nearby mountains. Eventually, Alex goes up in battle against Nethrom, the dwarvish necromancer in his elaborately guarded cave. Here he is able to dispel the evil “destroyer of spirits”, Mog, that has possessed Nethrom. The dwarf dies as himself, after a whispered thanks and a mysterious reference to the “order of Malgor”—a group we heard about briefly from Whalen Vankin in Book Two. Eventually, the group recovers the ring from Albrek’s tomb (not without a couple more adventures, of course) and returns it, along with some other important discoveries, to the dwarf king who paid for their adventure.
Sands of Nezza
Book Four, Sands of Nezza, does not follow the typical formula into the adventure. Instead, Alex receives a desperate note for help from his old adventuring companion, Skeld. He is being held captive in the city of Karmus in the tottering realm of Nezza. War is in the air and Magnus, a wizard and advisor to the puppet Lazar, is manipulating and murdering any who stand in the way of his power. Prince Rallian, the people’s favored heir to the throne, is one such obstacle. Fortunately, in the course of freeing Skeld and his companion adventurers, Alex also finds and frees Rallian from Magnus’s tower.
From the very beginning, Alex is cautioned that Magnus is more than an ordinary wizard—he has been in the land of Nezza for at least two hundred years under different names and guises, always leaving discord in his wake. Worse yet, there are whispers of “the Brotherhood”, an evil group with its tendrils throughout the known lands. After many twists and turns in the effort to bring Rallian to the throne, Magnus is defeated but narrowly escapes through a magical portal opened by wizards clearly far beyond Magnus’s powers—and perhaps even Alex Taylor’s.
The Axe of Sundering
The Axe of Sundering, the fifth and final book of the series, takes Alex to unknown lands in the company of his instructor, Whalen Vankin. The two determine that they must travel to Jarro, a series of three islands on which they believe the evil wizard, Jabez, is amassing an army. Jabez is a particular concern because he is the only other wizard who has been apprenticed to Vankin—and is also his nephew. Alex’s patience is tested as they must make their approach to Jabez’s fortress on the island of Westland unnoticed. The approach requires them to take on the role of merchants traveling slowly with a caravan which requires Alex (and Whalen) both to hide the truth of their identities and their magical abilities—both of which bother Alex’s conscience.
Eventually, they reach the kingdom where Jabez is building his army. In his hunt through the castle for the Axe of Sundering and Jabez, Alex also discovers an Orion Stone. These stones absorb the magical powers of others and can then pass the power on if the person is slain. He pockets the stone and soon finds the Axe of Sundering as well. However, in order to take the axe, the magic questions if he is willing to give up all of his powers. He hesitates but, after considering the evil that the Brotherhood and Jabez were doing, he surrenders his power in exchange. As soon as he is thus armed, the magic of the axe speaks to him, saying: “You have paid the price, and yet remain yourself. To freely offer all is payment enough.”
With this ringing in his ears, Alex goes on to challenge Jabez and finds him with a second Orion Stone, preparing to destroy Whalen, now his prisoner, and take his power. Alex is able to break the Orion Stone and kill Jabez. Almost instantly, Alex blacks out and regains consciousness in the headquarters of the Brotherhood. Here Alex and Whalen meet Gaylan, the leader of the Brotherhood. His power is clearly immense and he reveals his plan to use the Axe of Sundering to sunder the wall between life and death. We soon learn that his particular plan is to release from death his former master and the founder of the Brotherhood, Zain. Alex is physically forced by Zain into breaking the Wall and Zain escapes.
Salinor comes to Alex as he is nearly beyond hope and helps him accept his true dragon form and name. With the power he has now discovered, Salinor then charges him, as a guardian of the world, to defeat the Brotherhood and then repair the wall. He names Alex “guardian of the wall between the living and the dead.” Precisely because he was the one to sunder it, he can use his power, especially his dragon power, to mend it. Alex rushes back and defeats Zain who has taken on the body of Gaylan and then returns to the wall to complete his first task as its guardian.
Final Thoughts for the Adventurer
The Adventurers Wanted series is fun and thought-provoking but not without flaw. At times the writing seems lackluster and the overt discussions of honor and good may seem juvenile for older or more oppositional readers. Some plot threads never get looped-in (such as the order of Malgor) and the use of magic—or, later, Alex’s enormous power—can seem to give a cheap out from some of the difficulties they face.
There are a handful of references to characters drinking in excess at a wedding or enjoying the beer of some pub too much (not by Alex Taylor). Alex must use, of course, violence against his evil opponents and the descriptions of the evil Alex faces necessarily include some dark content. It does not, in my opinion, dwell excessively on the gory or malevolent. Rather, the stories are both packed with excitement but also positively formative. An indicator of the intention of the author to provoke discussion between the child reader and others is his list of discussion questions at the end of each book in this series. (I will, therefore, not provide discussion questions with this review.) I would highly recommend this series.