Ethen Coal and the Legend of the Blood Horn is an epic tale for young readers that blends genres and spans worlds. Across nearly 600 pages, Joshua Roberts offers elements of history and fantasy, modern action/adventure that recalls an Indiana Jones film, and classic swashbuckling exploits straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson. And it’s only the first installment in a promised series.
All of these elements come through in the exploits of Ethen Coal, a young archaeologist who accepts a commission from a mysterious stranger to hunt for a long-lost artifact. That prize is the Blood Horn, a ruby-shaped relic associated with the 18th-century pirate Rufus Stunner.
Joined by childhood friends Sam and Anastasia, Coal heads to Jamaica to pick up the trail of Stunner and track down the horn. What begins with run-ins with oddly anachronistic bands of pirates becomes even more surreal: The quest pulls Coal and his friends into other worlds and pits them against dragons, Mayan warriors, mermaids and other fantastical creatures. The Blood Horn is no mere relic; it’s a key from another world that carries many dangers.
Roberts writes with enthusiasm and energy, maintaining a straightforward, uncomplicated prose style designed to engage young readers. In the book’s key action scenes and most fantastical stretches, he delivers concise, imaginative storytelling.
Unfortunately, these 580-plus pages require editing. The action gets bogged down in an abundance of travel scenes and unnecessary stretches of dialogue. What’s more, that dialogue is often overly simplistic with repetitive attribution: “Harley said, ‘I’m glad Sam’s our fierce leader then.’ Sam said, ‘Not me! I’m just a follower!’ Ana said, ‘But they won’t make us women play, will they?’” Such strings of quotes go on far too long and pop up every few pages.
Despite its slow stretches, the novel offers the core of a compelling story. For those with due patience, Ethen Coal and the Legend of the Blood Horn offers plenty of gateways to compelling worlds.
Also available in hardcover.