Courtesy of author E. Jade Lomax, Beanstalk is the first book in the Leagues and Legends series, followed by Echoes of a Giantkiller and the forthcoming Remember the Dust, both of which have shuffled onto my “read as soon as possible” list. The story follows a group of four students thrown together as a study group at The Academy for the Education of Potential Adventurers and Legends; i.e. hero school. Hero school divides its students into five majors; guides, mages, sages, combat specialists, and heroes; in order to prepare them for a corresponding position in the bands of heroes known as Leagues.
Charismatic rogue Jack Farris is a guide, specializing in survival skills and navigation. He also cheerfully ignores any rule he disagrees with and, as stated by the author herself, “doesn’t want to save the world, just every person he knows, encounters, or hears of.” Grey Sanders, his roommate, is a sage, meaning his job is to know everything there is to know about everything. He specializes in sarcasm, thinks anyone who wants to actually fight monsters is crazy, and is looking forward to pursuing a career in the library archives. This plan will likely not work out for him. Laney Jones is their group’s mage, one of the rare few able to pull burning gold sparks of magic from the Elsewhere. She’s also a sharpshooter with magic-imbued bullets who actively experiments with improving the aerodynamics of her weapons. Do not pick a fight with Laney Jones. Finally, there is one Rupert Willington Jons Hammersfeld the Seventh, resident hero and nephew to the Academy’s Headmaster. A master organizer with a keen eye and years of exposure to the Academy bureaucracy, Rupert is as unruffled in politics as he is confident with a sword. All four also carry an unofficial minor in Lying and Secret-Keeping, none of them exactly as they seem and all of them with very good reasons for keeping everyone else in the dark.
With a lead character named Jack and a title like Beanstalk, you might find the lack of giants disappointing. Maybe there are giants buried deep in the backstory, yet to be seen, or perhaps a giant will make an appearance in the future, but, regardless, this is not a story of men being ground into bread and magical plants leading to the sky. No, this is a story about growth and growing up, about the shifting definition of home, and about the discovery that the sky is a much less important limit than the ones you set for yourself. Identity and trust are powerful currents throughout the work as it explores the contrast between presented and perceived identities with who a person actually is, even among trusted friends and confidantes. The world itself is, fittingly, a fairy tale world of monsters and magic, but one where heroes are a government-trained and provided service. Heroic idealism is artfully cut with bureaucratic cynicism, with the power structures present in the book falling squarely in a gray zone. Combined with the unique form of magic in this world, the world-building aspects of the story are both thorough and fascinating to explore, while leaving room to expand in the sequels.
Lomax’s writing style features heavy emphasis on characterization and emotion. Even supporting characters are crafted carefully, presented colorfully and with a constant sense of humanity. This works particularly well with the book’s focus on identity; the reader is constantly reminded that no individual is just a throwaway character or faceless mook. There are even three beautiful chapters, each titled “Obituaries,” devoted to exploring this fact. As morbid as that may sound, the book has its fair share of humor, and is a delight to read on every front.
Notably, Beanstalk and its sequels are/will be self-published works. On the plus side, this means they are available for free download in several formats on Lomax’s website, which also contains a link to purchase a physical copy. However, it also means that on a nitpicky details level, it can be less polished than a traditionally published work might be, with some ambiguities and pacing issues that could be smoothed over. That being said, I have definitely read professionally released books with worse typos, and the excellent worldbuilding and narrative of Beanstalk more than make up for it. Plus the ending leaves enough mystery hanging you’ll want to download Echoes of a Giantkiller immediately.