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Hollow Men is the first in a series of dark fantasy novellas by Todd Sullivan. Its great strength is that it is exactly the sort of story which the back cover leads you to believe it is. If you want a story about a small band of would-be heroes in an East Asian-flavored country going off on a quest to Win Glory and/or Quell Evil, then you need look no further and may do well to disregard everything else that I say. This is the prize which you seek: the writing is competent, the story is a quick read (2-4 hours by my estimate) but there are further entries in the series for a reader who wants to binge, and the tropes are familiar without being stale.
Our initial viewpoint character, Ha Jun, has been trained since childhood to embark upon (and hopefully survive) a heroic quest. His father, Jeong Suk, who trained him, is understandably eager to see Ha Jun on his way, but Ha Jun’s uncle, Gwang Min, would prefer that he stay at home. Heroics are a dangerous business, after all. Both his father and his uncle are sympathetic in their separate ways. It’s hard not to see Gwang Min’s—stay home! don’t get killed just because your dad wants to live vicariously through your probably-fatal adventure!—but the same is true of Ha Jun’s father. “Who will remember our names?” asks Jeong Seok. “In a hundred years, who will speak the names of Kang Jeong Seok and Kang Gwang Min?” Ha Jun’s father is a man who was promised glory but got nothing but the humdrum of inheriting the family business.
I don’t agree that the rational response to this is to raise up your son into a kind of physical superhero, but I can still see where he’s coming from. And the story arguably backs him up: people are speaking the name of Kang Jeok Seok, because this story exists, because—well, a guy named Todd Sullivan wrote a novella titled Hollow Men, I get it, but there’s a sense in which the story exists because Kang Jeok Seok decided to treat his son to a training regimen from Hell. If there’s an Aesop to this story, it’s that living vicariously through your children is a cool and good idea.
Other characters are also satisfactory, or more than satisfactory. There was, to my great relief, no Designated Asshole among the team of heroes to which Ha Jun is assigned. You will be hard-pressed to find any named character who is not sympathetic to some degree. We even spend some time getting to know them and their families. Windshine’s introductory chapter is one of the weakest, but this shouldn’t reflect on her as a character. “Windshine is the real hero of this story,” I wrote in my reading notes; imagine my satisfaction when I discovered that this series is called The Windshine Chronicles.
I will say, however, that while the romantic angle between Ha Jun and Windshine was good on a technical level, it was not very believable. Windshine is hundreds of years old, explicitly thinks that humans are so young that they’re basically children—in fact, her actual kid sister was “still a child at two hundred years old”—but nevertheless falls for Ha Jun, for reasons that feel more “mandated by the law that the protagonist of a story must find love” than “naturally emergent from the circumstances of the story.” I can’t help but think that Sullivan felt the same, because the romance hardly comes up and could easily be excised from the story without affecting the rest of the story.
Sullivan passes muster on the technical quality of his writing—it isn’t bad, but neither does it make me go weak in the knees. He’s able to grant us a good sense of place, especially where food is concerned (perhaps because he attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference), though this flags as the place in question zooms out from “immediate surroundings” to “geography.” I could muddle my way through by assuming that the country of South Hanguk basically maps to South Korea, but I dislike this kind of shortcut. There’s something about it which feels unaesthetic, but it opens up a lot of questions, too.
Some of these questions are pretty reasonable: “What’s up with North Hanguk?” Others, I’ll admit, are more ridiculous: “Was there a Dark Fantasy Korean War?” (Probably) “Was South Hanguk assisted by the forces of Dark Fantasy United States?” (No idea) But I insist that these aren’t completely ridiculous. They point to a more pressing issue, that we know nothing about the world except that there is a country named South Hanguk and another country, far away, where elves (probably) live. As I said before, Sullivan does an excellent job of giving us an immediate sense of place—food, trees, buildings—but broader surroundings are increasingly vague.
This lack of grounding extends to other things, most of them to do with the worldbuilding (the fact that I’m starting a second paragraph about worldbuilding will come as no surprise if you’re familiar with my work). There are plenty of things which we learn of but not about. Funnily enough, some of my earliest notes asked where glyph swords come from and how they work, and we later learn the answers to these things, but I thought nothing of Ha Jun’s training regimen until it became apparent that this was unusual, perhaps even unheard of, in South Hanguk. Where did Ha Jun’s father get it into his head to train his son in this way, or that it would bear such fruit, and why, given his unusual gifts, did other members of Ha Jun’s family doubt him quite so much?
On that note, we come to my final major criticism of the book. On TV Tropes, there’s a saying, “What happened to the mouse?” It refers to a scene in the film The Last Emperor, in which the title character throws his pet mouse, whose impact might be inferred but isn’t seen or heard. The mouse, of course, does not make another appearance. It simply vanishes from the film.
Hollow Men puts us in a similar situation, multiple times. We last see Ha Jun’s uncle on the ground, leg crushed beneath a fallen horse, crying out in pain. We spend some lovely time getting acquainted with family members and other loved ones, but hardly a thought is given to them in the back half. On a narrative level, the story’s greatest flaw is that it ends too soon. I would have liked to see a bit of mourning. I would have liked to see a reunion between Ha Jun and his father, or at least a sign that Ha Jun remembers that thing with his uncle and the horse.
I’ll close with an opening. Hollow Men starts out with a banger line. It’s the “Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.” of dark fantasy novellas.
“Every year, the heroes got younger.”