I was first introduced to Jacob Sannox in last year's SPFBO contest when I read and reviewed The Ravenmaster's Revenge. I rather liked that story - a modern take on the King Arthur legend - but I definitely prefer Dark Oak. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, save classic-type prose and some head-hopping like that of Ravenmaster's Revenge. And while I wasn't wrong, Dark Oak, in my opinion, is superior in writing style and doesn't head-hop nearly as much as the previous work by this author. And the story itself? Different, and dark, and it goes places I certainly didn't expect.
It follows the story of three main characters, for the most part. Morrick is a woodmaster, and has been drafted into the army of one Awgren, and his legion of Devised. Morrick had no choice in the matter - he was forced to fight, as we soon learn, and the opening pages depict the battle in which Awgren's forces are defeated. It was a unique start to a story. I don't know if I've ever read anything quite like it, actually. Generally speaking, a story usually has a build up to a battle or war, but in Dark Oak, we are dropped into the last battle and the story is the aftermath. This lent to a lot of info dumping, but it was done well. The ramifications come out in political drama, familial drama, and... welll... tree-drama. But I'll get to that.
The next main character is Morrick's wife, Rowan. The poor woman is trying to keep her farm afloat while waiting for her husband to return while raising two sons and a newborn daughter. There is trouble from the village as corrupt people try to take advantage of the fact that there is a war, and Rowan is struggling to get the village to unite against it. Eventually, her farm is attacked by a roving band of now-dispersed Devised and she is on the run. There is tragedy involved that made me cringe, but it only makes the story all the more believable and Rowan a sympathetic character. Her story arc is sad, to be sure. And although her descent to crazed madness and terrible decisions was understandable considering what she went through, part of me wished she had been portrayed a bit better, and less like a crazy woman who can't keep her s--- together.
Lastly, by FAR the best character in the book is Riark, a Dryad. I would describe him as a bada-- Ent. He can travel through trees, and therefore can traverse across the whole of the world (if there are nearby trees) with a thought. He is a deceased human, but has lost his humanness for something altogether... different. His motivation is simply that of protecting natural life, and he wants to prevent a certain man from carving a road through his brethren. Riark knows of Morrick - a woodmaster - but knows Morrick to be respectful of trees and not using them for selfish reasons - much like a circle of life type of idea. They form a bond, and the bond leads very unexpected places.
I rather enjoyed this creative story, from Riark and his uniqueness to the dark places the plotline went. The prose, as I mentioned previously, is more classically bent, and I nod my head in approval. It was beautiful at times, and the depictions, although sometimes rambling, took me back to the writing style of Lewis, or Tolkien, or Doyle. It head-hopped, for sure, but not enough to make me stop reading.
I also enjoyed the theme - the importance of cultivating the earth instead of destroying it. Of course, this isn't the only theme, but it's the strongest. The story highlights Morrick's respect for the forest, and in truly creative, unique ways, shows the thread of life that runs through not just humanity but the world as a whole. Dryads aren't the only cool thing about this book, that's for sure.
All in all, this is a 4/5 stars for me. If you like dark fantasy light on the magic, unique characters, and the classics, check this one out.