Dawn of Wonder is the stunning debut novel by Jonathan Renshaw and is also the first in his The Wakening epic fantasy series. The story is the coming of age tale of a young boy named Aeden, and from that perspective, the book may sound trite, but it succeeds in ways so many similar novels fail. First, Mr. Renshaw captures the absolute fun of being “almost thirteen”. His Aeden is a Tom Sawyeresque character who is utterly charming. From the very first scene when he tries to convince his friend Thomas to jump off a bridge into a snow-melt-cold stream to the various pranks and gags he manages to pull off throughout the novel with daring aplomb, there is joy in him, and he is a joy to discover.
But a novel can’t be all fun and games. There has to be testing and testing there is. Mr. Renshaw shows us this ‘summertime of his life’ child and immediately engulfs him in tragedy. In the hands of a lesser author, what happens to Aeden would simply come off as paint-by-numbers writing. Often, these secondary characters seem to have a singular purpose: Die so the main feels sadness. That’s not a flaw in Dawn of Wonder. Mr. Renshaw imbues all his characters with life and meaning. The loss Aeden experiences is genuine. I felt it. With one scene in particular, my heart actually clenched. That hasn’t happened in a long time.
Following this loss, young Aeden’s secret shame is revealed as he and his family have to flee their bucolic home. This shame-an abusive father-is one that will haunt Aeden throughout the rest of the story. It’s a fatal flaw that he did not deserve or cause, but one that will forever define him, rendering an otherwise courageous boy cowardly.
He travels on to the southern city of Castath and is eventually enrolled in the military academy meant to train the marshals, the nation’s elite warriors and spies. It is there that the story spends the majority of its time, and in this, it is much like Anthony Ryan’s splendid Blood Song. While the story and scenes in Castath with Aeden’s training as a marshal aren’t quite as mysterious or riveting as those in Blood Song, they are, nevertheless, fascinating and well done. Characterizations are strong and most of them are quite likable. Much more happens in this large book (over 700 pages). There is great daring-do, ancient mysteries unearthed, and literal laugh-out-loud moments. There is also that sense of age, of history and truth to this novel that serves as the hallmark of the best worldbuilding.
But if that was all there was to this story: another coming-of-age story done well, but this one with humor, I wouldn’t be writing this review.
Instead, I am doing so because Mr. Renshaw’s writing is simply astounding. His effortless command of syntax, structure, and similes is remarkable. His writing is absolutely gorgeous with a breezy, yet detailed way of describing any scene and setting. There seemed to be a moment every page where I would have to pause and re-read a passage simply to take in the clever turn of phrase, the poetry, or the unexpected use of adjectives as nouns. It was absolutely beautiful and for this reason alone, should be read. His elegant, poetic prose, so like Mark Lawrence’s (although Aeden is definitely not Jorg, nor is Dawn of Wonder grimdark), turned a very good story with themes that touched my heart into one that is wondrous (pun intended).
All in all, Dawn of Wonder was the finest self-published fantasy novel I’ve read since the previously mentioned Blood Song, and one of the finest fantasy novels I’ve read in the past few years, period.