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What it feels like to read a writer who reads...

In 2018, I said that there was a crisis in Maltese publishing. I recall saying that I believed that the best Maltese literature is stowed away in bedrooms not on local bookshop shelves. The Maltese classics—the greats—aren’t in bookshops either because they are out of print unless they are suddenly reintroduced into the school curriculum. This is why the Maltese aren’t reading local works coupled with the fact that the quality of current reading material is often not good enough.

In 2019, I was chosen as a National Book Prize adjudicator. I, along with my fellow judges, decided not to give out a prize for best novel. The quality wasn’t good enough. There was a national furore, a typical Maltese flinch and reaction at any form of criticism. Articles were published, the key players made their voice heard. I simply said that the writers that year evinced a clear lack of reading. This didn’t mean that I expected every writer to read Proust or Dostoyevsky to be a good writer. But I expect someone writing a political thriller to be able to at least mention one political thriller that they have read. This is because tone and voice, arguably the most elusive of literary devices, are also the most important: you can’t write a good horror story if you’ve never read one; you cannot break the rules and conventions of a genre if you don’t know what the rules are.

Today, in 2021, I feel vindicated. I accidentally stumbled upon a local author called Marco Mizzi. In his bedroom was a fantasy trilogy of his in the works, with the first novel in the planned series, A Phantom’s Vengeance, having just been completed. He was kind enough to send me an ARC of A Phantom’s Vengeance. I read it carefully, I took my time, I read it like a serious critic would.

A Phantom’s Vengeance tells the tale of Danio, a reliable soldier in King Marnol’s army. He has just survived the Battle of the Swamps in the Marshlands, one of the many battles that define the war between High Lord Shorid of Malktown and his own brother King Marnol of Mesanda. Danio is now returning home to his wife and daughter.

Danio has a murky past but is a good man who values his family over everything else. But he is a soldier and there are demands placed upon him that might put his wife and daughter at risk. A plot to assassinate the king embroils him in a situation of national significance and one that is also very personal. It lends him the name of Phantom and takes him on a chase for vengeance across wars and borders.

It’s hard to say any more about the plot without spoiling anything since the story twists and turns in the most extraordinary of ways. The twists are almost expected because they are so well written but the surprises still come because they are also very well written.

But I do feel vindicated because it’s clear that Marco Mizzi knows his genre and he knows it very well. This is grimdark fantasy at its best. Mizzi knows the violence, the vocabulary, the setting, and the characters. The dialogue is spot on and the plot is carefully constructed for a fierce and breath-taking story.

A Phantom’s Vengeance is an exercise in humility. It’s a story that stays very close to grimdark fantasy—because it’s clear that Mizzi has read far and wide in this genre—but it’s also excellently crafted. The novel doesn’t stop giving, whether it’s character motivation or impeccably written war scenes or political intrigue. It’s fast-paced and gripping and peppered with scenes that are intelligent and well-placed, whether it’s a foreshadowing dream sequence or a plot twist that dares to twist again at the very end.

I feel proud of having encountered a Maltese novelist who takes his craft so seriously that he has written an exemplary work of speculative fiction. Mizzi even designed maps to accompany the text, a text that is literary and poetic and brutal, that delivers an exciting and heart-breaking story of a good man’s will to scour a violent world for some form of justice.

There is more to say and better ways to say it, I’m sure, but anyone with an interest in fantasy — the kind like Game of Thrones, and Prince of Thorns, the works of Joe Abercrombie, and Brian Staveley — this book is a must, an impeccable addition to similar works of its genre, with a character you root for at every turn.

Ultimately, it’s the perfect start for a trilogy of its kind because the first story is concluded very well but there is so much more left hanging, which you know Danio is not going to turn his back on.

So, yes, this writer is clearly a reader, not because of his knowledge of Proust or Dostoyevsky, but because he’s read the works that define his tone and voice, and he knows exactly what to put in his story and what to leave out. And, yes, this book isn’t in any local bookshop, but will be self-published in the coming days. Had this book been published in 2019, I would have given it the National Book Prize.

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