★★★★ Legends by Jacob Benner kicks off with a bang—and a crash. Wes, Austin, Derek, and Zach have just survived a plane crash somewhere in the American West. Now orphans, the four teenaged boys were on their way to a family reunion in Hawaii when the unthinkable happened. But they don’t have time to figure out how or why they were the only survivors from the crash, especially when every moment they spend staying still is just another opportunity for the cops to find them. Unexpectedly, the boys find themselves at the gates of Dark Manor, a mysterious fortress ruled over by the Dark Sorceress, who offers them refuge from the law. With nothing left to lose, the boys pledge their fealty to the Dark Sorceress and become her top soldiers. Yet the presence of so many soldiers at Dark Manor would lead curious minds to wonder why such a large fighting force is needed to protect one fortress. What conflict is the Dark Sorceress expecting to face? And just what sort of mess have the four boys found themselves wrapped up in?
In this highly ambitious militaristic fantasy novel, Benner fabricates an elaborate world with a well-regulated magic system and a number of likeable characters. With ten distinct branches of magic in his world, Benner makes the smart choice of telling his story from the perspective of the Shadow branch, a group known for commingling with corpses and teleporting in a puff of smoke—not to mention that they have an army of skeleton soldiers at their disposal. Often relegated to the sidelines in other fantasy novels, Benner shows how even those allied with darkness can be sympathetic—and heroic—narrators. With so much to like about this book, it seems nitpicky to point out that the book’s length significantly works against the efficacy of its story. Assuming the author intends his book to be read by teenagers—and with a fourteen-year-old protagonist, it would seem a safe assumption—there might be something to be gained by drawing the main conflict out across a series of interwoven novels. By providing himself a bit more breathing room, Benner could easily entertain readers with even more details from his enthralling world.