Have you ever fancied running a pub? What about two pubs? And what if they were in different dimensions? Enter Mark Adams, who is in serious need of a pint. Now the fabled landlord of Peacebattle, he’s the only person who can stop the world from screaming for the rest of time. But why chose a loser to save the world? What is the truth at the heart of the Binding Brothers’ dark religion and the monsters who thrive in its heart? And will Mark survive long enough to remember the most important advice of his entire career: Don’t scream. Whatever you do. Don’t scream.
The Axe & Grindstone genuinely surprised me– I almost never read a synopsis, so the title in concert with the cover and a generically vague prologue left me with the impression that the novel I was reading was going to be some flavor of generic high fantasy romp. There’s nothing wrong with those stories, but traditional sword and sorcery fantasy never really grabs me, so to say I was leery to continue would be an understatement. I’m happy to report that not only is the novel not what I initially expected in terms of genre, but that it far exceeded any expectations I had in general and it’s easily one of my favorite recent reads. Hats off to the author, Paul Phipps-Williams, for such a strong debut novel and for writing a story that is both imaginative and relatable.
At its core, The Axe & Grindstone is a coming of age tale about a man who likely should have come of age a half-decade or more before the events of the book– the Mark Adams we’re introduced to has spent the entirety of his adult life in a dead-end pub job with no intention of bettering himself, rarely venturing outside the one city block which houses all of his basic needs. When a spur of the moment job offer prompts Mark to finally venture out of his comfort zone he finds himself wrapped up in a web of pain cultists, prophecies, old flames, and brandy-guzzling rock monsters. What I found refreshing about the protagonist is that his transformation isn’t so much about competence or strength– Mark’s growth comes from accepting responsibility and being willing to step up as a leader. At no point is Mark a shining example of any particular human ideal, if anything he’s a bit shlubby and manages to get by on a combination of luck, perseverance, and help from his more capable allies. That being said, because the story is told from the first-person perspective, it never feels condescending towards Mark’s circumstances or decisions. I appreciate that the author lets the audience make their own judgment calls, which later makes his growth feel more organic and pronounced.
Another major strength of The Axe & Grindstone is Phipps-Williams’ ability to juggle contrasting tones. I’d call the novel a fairly even split between humor and horrific dark fantasy, and I felt that either of those halves were more than competent on their own. The humor is a lot of what you’d expect from an urban fantasy novel about a barman in a sort of Narnia (albeit a decidedly more violent one), but it’s still a lot of fun to read the fish out of water encounters which Mark finds in the Grindstone, and those moments contribute to the overall feelings of steadfastness and camaraderie which are central to the novel. The opposite side of the coin is an army of scream-worshipping torture monks who are led by a man with crab-like feet and needle fingers who also has the ability to psychically push people towards horrific means of suicide, both in our world and in the alternate dimension which the Grindstone occupies. Yes, it’s kind of a lot, but when the novel switches between these elements from chapter to chapter they both shine brighter and create a story that feels well rounded.
Perhaps most importantly, the novel never loses sight of being entertaining. It’s fast and punchy from beginning to end, and at just under 300 pages it still somehow manages to fit enough exposition alongside the action to make the world feel whole and satisfying to explore. Phipps-Williams isn’t afraid to tackle very dark subject matter but also never takes himself too seriously, and the result is a truly fun novel. The Axe & Grindstone may not be typical fare for horror readers, but I recommend it without reservation.
The Axe & Grindstone is available digitally and in paperback here.