If I were to tell a young person about The Last Archer by S.D. Smith, I’d probably say something like this: It’s the story of an archer named Jo Shanks who wants to earn his place among a group of elite bowmen (bowrabbits? bowbucks?) from Halfwind Citadel. He goes through various trials and battles in his quest to prove himself as he gets caught up in the wider war for Natalia.
Here’s what I’d say to a grown-up: It’s the story of an archer named Jo Shanks who is haunted by his father’s failures and driven by a relentless lust for acclaim. After repeatedly failing in his attempts to prove himself, he finally finds what he’s looking for — though not in the way he expects.
Both descriptions are true, of course. And this is true, too: This short, quick read is a lot of fun and very good.
The Last Archer is set during the events of The Green Ember, a sort of parallel narrative that’s swept up into the greater story. I admit that I went into this one with a bit of skepticism. It isn’t easy to retell a story from a different perspective or, rather, to tell a parallel story that overlaps with the first book. I haven’t seen that since Orson Scott Card did it with Ender’s Shadow, which is to Ender’s Game something like what The Last Archer is to The Green Ember.
Smith pulls it off, though, and does so handily.
In The Last Archer, we see Jo Shanks’s backstory, before he found his fame in later books as a member of one of the Fowlers. If I remember correctly, we first met Jo toward the end of The Green Ember, when Heather finds him wounded in battle and binds his wounds before continuing her mad dash down the mountain. They exchange a few words, and that’s the end of the scene with Jo Shanks.
Except that it isn’t, really. That same scene is the climax of The Last Archer, and in it we learn a little bit more about what really happened, precisely because we see it from Jo’s perspective instead of Heather’s.
That’s the magic of this little book: Seeing many of the same events from a new perspective gives readers the satisfying feeling of peeking behind the curtain in a story whose ending we already know (sort of) — not in the way that spoils it but makes one feel like he’s on the inside. There’s a knowing wink and a nod, for example, when we learn of Jo’s hatred for the Longtreaders or the scene where he meets Smalls, not realizing quite yet who he’s really talking to. Jo doesn’t know, but we do.
It’s been a while since I’ve read The Green Ember, but I still remember the scenes of Helmer, Lord Rake, Uncle Wilfred and Smalls training against wooden birds of prey with steel talons, strung from a tree by ropes.
When Jo Shanks enters Cloud Mountain for the first time in The Last Archer, we see this scene: “On the far side of the green, he saw a thick tree with dangling ropes and all sorts of strange contraptions attached to the ropes and set on the grass. Amid the mess, a tall black rabbit and a smaller gold-grey buck were fighting with wooden swords.”
It’s impossible to read that without a familiar smile. I know that tree, and I know those rabbits! I’ve been here before. This inside information doesn’t take away from the pleasures of the book but adds to it.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of The Last Archer, though, is the small delight of returning to a well-loved world, even if only for a handful of hours. The book is a brief tale, fast-paced and energetic and over almost as soon as it begins — but it’s a powerful one. Fans of the series won’t want to miss this story of one rabbit’s redemption as he’s drawn into the fate of Natalia.