Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce – REVIEW
By: Preston Simmons | Written: 15 July 2021
Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce is an excellent entry point into the progression fantasy genre. When I first started reading the book, I had my doubts going into it. I saw that the page count on my kindle app listed it at only 213 pages, a relatively short book for my tastes. How could a book this short develop the characters into people that I care about, show me at least some aspects of an interesting magic system, all while having an interesting plot? Somehow, John Bierce managed to do all of those things and more. In fact, he did it so well that I consider Into the Labyrinth one of the best progression fantasy books for beginners to the genre.
Into the Labyrinth follows Hugh of Emblin, a shy and friendless student at Skyhold Academy, who also happens to be the worst mage in the school’s history. Hugh thinks there is no hope left for him at the academy when surprisingly, he gets chosen to be the apprentice to a mysterious mage. From then on, Hugh’s life at the academy would be nothing like anything he could ever imagine.
The story itself is nothing genre-defying or mind-blowing, yet the simplicity of it works. With the help of his teacher and newfound friends, Hugh must learn to use his mage abilities to pass the end of the term exam, delving into the labyrinth under the school and making it past the first floor and back alive.
Even though the main plot may have been simple, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. It was interesting enough for me to finish the book in a single sitting, so that alone is worthy of praise. Though in truth, the story is not what makes this book a good read. Instead, it’s in its characters where the book shines the most.
Hugh of Emblin
As I’ve said before, characters can make or break a book. Fortunately, the characters of Into the Labyrinth are the highlight of the book. Hugh, the book’s protagonist, was a painfully relatable character to read about. At the beginning of the book, he is timid, withdrawn, a subject of bullying, hateful towards himself, quiet, has a hard time looking others in the eyes, and friendless. When teachers try to help him, he believes they are wasting their time on him. He considers himself worthless. Needless to say, he’s a troubled kid.
For some readers who may have never experienced bullying or being your own worse critic, it may be hard to read about a protagonist like this. You will probably feel uncomfortable, or instead, or may dislike Hugh as a character altogether. For others, though, who have gone through similar feelings of self-hatred like Hugh had, you may relate to Hugh in more ways than one. The beauty of Into the Labyrinth and the beauty of progression fantasy, in general, is in how the character grows as the story progresses. Hugh is no exception to the rule. He grows in more ways than one by the end of the book, but his progress can be attributed to one specific source; his friends.
Hugh’s friends are some of the best a shy kid could ever ask for. They are supportive, protective, loving, but at the same time, the ones who make sure Hugh lives up to his potential. They are exactly what Hugh needed at the time to grow as a character and out of his personal shell. That isn’t to say that Bierce only wrote the characters to enhance Hugh. No, each character has their own difficulties to overcome and room for growth.
Sabae, Talia, and Godrick
Sabae, the stoic daughter of one of the most prolific families in the land, has multiple powers that she can’t seem to use right. Not only are they dangerous, but they are also prone to self-harming her, as evident by the many scars on her body. On top of that, one of her powers she refuses even to acknowledge that it exists. Just like Hugh, she also deals with self-hatred and doubt, though it is not as blatant as his.
Talia, the daughter of one of the most powerful fire clans globally, can’t use fire magic. Because of her lack of self-worth, she is prone to lashing out at others and getting into fights. But behind her tough facade is a protective, loving, and kind girl that only wants the best for her friends.
Godrick, well, he’s just a nice guy. Unfortunately, one character would have to get the least amount of development in such a short book, and Godrick pulled the short straw there. We don’t get to learn much about him, but we do see that he’s the glue that sticks them all together. I predict there’s more to him than the nice guy, though. We know that he is the son of one of the most powerful battlemages out there, so I’m sure there could be some personal issues that Godrick might bring up later regarding living up to his father’s expectations.
And then there is the teacher, Alustin. If you have read the Cradle series, think of a toned-down Eithan Arelius. He’s a certified Librarian Errant. He’s quirky, he’s smart, and he’s an overall really fun character to read. There’s definitely more to him than meets the eye.
Final Thoughts for Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce
Overall, Into the Labyrinth was a short, fun read that is a great entry for those new to progression fantasy. The characters were by far the highlight of the book, especially Hugh, the protagonist. This is the perfect book for a quiet afternoon or a long plane ride that you can expect to finish in one sitting. I can’t wait to see how Hugh and his friends grow from here.
Into the Labyrinth by John Bierce