The Worm Within is a story of loyalty, intrigue and extra-dimensional threats set in a future so far distant it looks a lot like a mythical past. The protagonist, Iago, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, of sorts; he is also an orphan with a destiny, who goes on what could be seen as a quest. These are tropes we know but when done well, as they are here, we can see how they became tropes.
On the surface the supporting characters are also a little archetypal, as we do have an adventuring party that includes a thief, a paladin and a healer – characters any table top role-player will know well. This isn’t a great surprise: Sarah Newton is a respected RPG designer. Nor is it a problem, because the characters are well-rounded, sympathetic and believable; in fact for me the familiar set-up added to, rather than detracted from, the overall effect; I enjoyed coming across something in my comfort zone executed in a new and refreshing way.
The book’s greatest strength is its world-building. You get the sense, reading The Worm Within, that you’re looking at a culture that has forgotten more than we yet know. The weight of history the characters struggle under is both oppressive and compelling. They face Lovecraft-influenced horrors that are some of the most disturbing I’ve come across, and the world has an overall flavour reminiscent of Professor Barker’s Tekumel.
The author credits her readers with the ability to work out what they need to know from context, which is a refreshing change – not an infodump in sight. Occasionally the reader may need to take a moment to place a new concept, but the overall effect is to give this world an uncommon richness, with its flamelances and mentaliths, its manatine energies and planing machines.
I should admit a personal interest here, as Sarah Newton is a friend, and I’ve seen something of this book’s development, but the end result is something I’d be happy to endorse even if I knew nothing about it. This is classic fantasy packed with exquisite and original touches.