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Literature / The Unwilling Warlord

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The Unwilling Warlord, third of the The Legends of Ethshar fantasy novels by Lawrence Watt-Evans, chronicles the rise of Sterren the Ninth Warlord, and the establishment of the Empire of Vond.

Semma, a tiny kingdom, has managed to enrage two of its larger neighbors. War is on the horizon, and the Eighth Warlord has chosen this inconvenient time to die without leaving an heir nearby to take the position.

Meanwhile in Ethshar of the Spices, a young gambler named Sterren learns more about his family than he ever wanted to know when a group of intimidating foreigners show up at the tavern where he's been fleecing suckers and tell him he's got a new job. When the swords come out, he realizes he doesn't have a choice.

Sterren has no training and no experience, his subordinates are fops and idiots, and his army consists of eighty-five men against hundreds.

Also, if he loses it's a sure thing that the victors will have him executed.

There's only one way to win, but will the solution prove worse than the problem?


This novel provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: After being dragged from the civilized Ethshar of the Spices to one of the backwards Small Kingdoms, Sterren learns that the tiny army he's been conscripted to lead into battle doesn't have a single mage among them, and that indeed, his officers seem baffled that he'd even ask. When he explains that Ethshar uses mages in battle, one of his officers spits out a word that his bodyguard later tactfully translates as: "a person of no culture, unfit to be around ordinary people". Sterren finds it hilarious that they'd call him a barbarian.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Sterren (18/19) and Princess Shirrin (around 13) develop mutual feelings for each other and marry at some point after the novel. It's medieval society, and there's no indication that their relationship goes any further than romantic affection within the novel's scope.
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  • Alas, Poor Villain: Sterren weeps for Vond after he is finally Called to Aldagmor. It's unstated whether this is out of relief that the unstable warlock has finally gone, sympathy for the unknown fate that awaits him, guilt at having helped drive him deeper into the Calling in order to stop his reign—or all three.
  • Anti-Villain: Vond is an unstoppable conqueror...of squabbling, corrupt kingdoms who'd been sending their men to die in pointless wars against each other, and he topples them with a minimum of bloodshed, proving to be, at the least, a benignly neglectful ruler. He starts to slip after a while, though.
  • Appeal to Force: Vond single-handedly overturns dozens of Small Kingdoms and unites them under his banner, by virtue of being too powerful for anyone to do anything to stop him.
  • Bad Boss: Vond kills a servant for accidentally spilling some wine onto his robe in a fit of rage. This act is what finally leads Sterren to get off the fence about working to bring him down.
  • Benevolent Mage Ruler: Vond gains access to tremendous magical power and easily conquers several small kingdoms, creating an empire. But Vond is not a bad ruler: for example, he helps peasants to grow crops with his magic. He mostly plays with his warlockry, spends time with his harem (assembled without any coercion), and delegates the "boring stuff" to the ruling council. And then it gets kinda doubly subverted, when the Calling - every warlock's bane - catches up with him...
  • Bullying a Dragon: King Phenvel is terrified of the mages Sterren brings back. Unfortunately, being a Jerkass, he covers this terror by mocking and snubbing them. Really unfortunate, because this insult is one of the factors that pushes Vond into starting the empire that deposes him.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Sterren knows that Vond still has a connection to the original Source, and that said connection and the Calling grow stronger every time Vond uses his powers. He spends some time debating whether or not to warn Vond, since he isn't really doing anything evil, per se, and indeed might be considered beneficial. And then during a tense moment, Vond snaps and kills a man for spilling wine on him, which makes up Sterren's mind.
  • Character Development: Sterren gradually grows into a more responsible person over the course of the novel.
  • The Chessmaster: King Tendel III of Semma managed to avoid a hopeless war against the larger countries of Ophkar and Ksinallion by cleverly playing the two kingdoms against each other and establishing alliances with several other countries. This delicate balance was ruined by his idiot son Phenvel III, who managed to insult and alienate everyone.
  • Compelling Voice: Given the focus on warlocks, this is the first book which really elaborates on The Calling and its nature. Essentially, warlocks get their Mind over Matter powers from a signal emitted by a mysterious Source located somewhere in the country of Aldagmor. As they use their powers, the connection to said Source becomes stronger, as does the compulsion to use their powers whenever they can. At some point, when they grow powerful enough, the warlock begins to hear the Source compelling them to come to Aldagmor, which becomes stronger as they do. Sensible warlocks accumulate as much money as they can in their career until The Calling becomes a problem, move as far away from Aldagmor as they can so the signal becomes too weak to bother them (much), and try to use their powers as little as possible. Vond is attempting to do just this when he takes Sterren's offer to move to Semma.
  • Cool Old Lady: Lady Kalira proves the second-most competent person in Semma (after the spymaster), and doesn't take any guff from Sterren.
  • Covers Always Lie: An unintentional example in the original printing. Darrell K. Sweet sent in a finished cover for an entirely unrelated book from a different series while working on the cover for Warlord, and by the time Del Rey realized their error it was too late.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Vond grows so powerful that he can easily defeat entire armies without effort, conquering a large number of small states in a row.
  • The Empire: Vond's empire is nominally this, but between his Council and lack of interest in actually running the place, it develops into something more like The Alliance.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Sterren picks up on the fact that Vond had never lost his attunement to the old Source in Aldagmor, even as far away as Semma. Vond, however, doesn't realize this until after he's used his power so often said Source's Calling has become nigh-irresistible.
  • Gaslighting: Although Sterren's group of mages isn't particularly powerful (for a while anyway) they're able to pool their talents and exploit the Ksinallion army's unfamiliarity with magic to sow confusion and paranoia among the invaders.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Averted. Queen Ashassa seems quite sensible and intelligent...unlike her husband.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Vond says he hears a buzzing in his head vaguely like the Source of warlockery and Sterren suggests trying to attune to it. Well, just look at most of the spoilers on this page to see how that goes.
  • Halfway Plot Switch: The war Sterren's been conscripted to fight ends in no time flat. The winner? Vond. The rest of the book involves adapting to his rule.
  • Harem Seeker: Vond has a number of young ladies brought forth to order to politely ask them to join his harem, where they will be well-treated and rewarded. Several women go for it, and those who decline are allowed to leave peacefully.
  • Hereditary Republic: Although a kingdom, Semma passes its government positions down family lines, believing that skill for royal positions is inherently passed in the blood.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier:
    • When sent back to Ethshar to recruit mages, Sterren tries to use this to call for help from the citizens. But while Lady Kalira doesn't know much Ethshartic, she knows he used the words for "City Guard" and not the word for "wizard", so he has to give up.
    • Phenvel mocks the mages Sterren brings back to their faces in Semman. Unfortunately, it's clear he's being a jerk.
  • Honor Before Reason: In the southern Small Kingdoms the notion of using magic in war is regarded as a barbaric practice, no matter how outnumbered you are. Sterren barely manages to convince Phenvel to try it, and even then, the king refuses to give him more than a paucity of money to recruit with.
  • Inept Mage:
    • Sterren apprenticed as a warlock but was deemed unsuitable after three days—in fact, he was so bad that warlocks would apparently use his example to set a standard for recognizing people unsuited to be apprenticed. After Vond opens his mind to the other Source, he...still can't do anything much. Yet.
    • As an apprentice Agor the Theurgist learned the prayers to call upon nineteen of the many, many gods of the world. However, he can only actually make three of them work, allowing him to call upon the fearsome might of...Unniel the Discerning, goddess of magical and godly information (who can occasionally be convinced to talk to the dead or convey messages to other gods), Morrn the Preserver, god of family trees, and Konned, who provides supernatural light to see by at night and comfortable warmth in the cold. Not exactly the most encouraging bunch in times of war.
    • Annara of Crookwall was only capable of learning a few useful spells, and ended up homeless after her apprenticeship.
  • In the Blood: Phenvel and most of the nobles think being a good warlord is this. Sterren knows better.
  • The Juggernaut: Vond is basically a magical version of this.
  • Land of One City: Semma is one castle and its environs, while several nearby port city-states also exist.
  • Maligned Mixed Ancestry: When Sterren starts working with Vond, the nobles credit his traitorous nature to his three-quarters Ethshartic blood.
  • Mind over Matter: This is the first book in the series that really elaborates on warlocks' abilities.
    • Vond was about as powerful as a warlock could get before being totally unable to resist The Calling. When he finds a new Source that doesn't Call, well, stand back...
    • Sterren can subconsciously move dice to favor himself and that's it. So far.
  • The Mole: After a couple of his allies act cagey around Sterren, suspecting him of this, he gets irritated and points out that, no he's not a spy, and that if Vond really suspected them of anything and cared, he'd just torture the information out of them instead of being sneaky. They acknowledge this as true and open up.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: Annara of Crookwall is a mediocre wizard at best, but as far as the southern Small Kingdoms are concerned, she's incredible. That (and a hinted relationship with Agor the Theurgist) is why she chooses to stay in Semma.
  • Odd Friendship: Sterren views his friendship with Vond this way, but from Vond's perspective Sterren has been nothing but helpful and straightforward. Poor, poor Vond.
  • One-Man Army: Vond's magic is so great he takes on whole armies of muggles multiple times and easily beats them.
  • Phlebotinum Overdose: Upon realizing that Vond is starting to become more and more tyrannical, Sterren starts encouraging him to do greater and greater magic feats until he grows too powerful to resist the Calling any longer.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Vond wants all the fun parts of being an emperor without all that ruling business. He delegates all that to Sterren and his Council.
  • Power Incontinence: By the time Vond realizes he's being Called and tries to rein in his magic, it's too late. He keeps using his power inadvertently, and starts trying to reach Aldagmor in his sleep, when he can't control himself.
  • Professional Gambler: Sterren spent most of his life making a living off his dice...thanks to a little telekinesis.
  • The Quisling: Technically, Sterren is helping a conqueror run the kingdom he's taken over, but only the deposed nobles really regard this negatively.
  • Rags to Royalty: Sterren goes from a struggling gambler to high-level government positions, as he has noble ancestry and befriends Vond, ending up the de facto ruler of Vond's empire after he's finally Called.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The mages Sterren manages to recruit consist of three somewhat diffident witches, a decent wizard, a crappy wizard, and a warlock who's trying to get as far from the Source as possible. By sticking to guerrilla tactics and tricks, they do remarkably well...until Vond attunes to a new Source and renders them all irrelevant.
  • The Reliable One: Lady Kalira, the most loyal and competent of the Semman nobles, except perhaps for the spymaster.
  • Reluctant Ruler: Sterren absolutely does not want to be Semma's warlord. And feels he has no choice but to be Vond's Chancellor. And then gets drafted into being Regent of Vond's empire, because it would fall apart without someone to run it.
  • Really Royalty Reveal: Sterren had no idea his grandmother was Semman nobility until a bunch of Semmans showed up on his doorstep and told him so. Then they kidnapped him.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Supernatural Powers!: Vond's response to discovering a new Source of near-infinite power and being insulted by Phenvel is to start building his palace in Phenvel's proverbial backyard, making a massive hill, ripping stone out of the ground, etc. When Sterren points out that Phenvel and the villagers whose land he's tearing apart might have some objection, Vond just shrugs and asks what they can do to stop him.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Sterren spends much of the book looking for a way to do this. When finally he gets his chance, his sense of responsibility has become too strong to leave the people of Vond's new empire in the lurch.
  • The Siege: Sterren returns from his recruitment mission, mages in tow, only to learn that Semma's enemies attacked in his absence, as opposed to waiting for spring, as expected, and are laying siege to the castle already. He manages to defeat them with the mages.
  • Story-Breaker Power: Nothing can counter Vond's power...except the Calling.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Sterren deliberately invokes this, pushing Vond into greater and greater feats of magic, in order to hasten his Calling.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Sterren's not happy about it, but he realizes he has to be this in order to get rid of Vond before it's too late.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: After Vond ends the war Phenvel complains about how long it took, insults the mages, whines about how he could've profited from a surrender instead of a rout and complains about how Vond breaking the siege Semma Castle was under messed up the city. Vond can't understand Semman, but he knows he's being insulted...and he's not pleased.
  • Upper-Class Twit: King Phenvel and most other members of Semman nobility.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Calling him a villain is a matter of perspective, but Vond treats his peasants better than the nobles ever did.
  • Willfully Weak: As a warlock very near the point where The Calling is starting to become a problem, Vond is looking to use his powers as little as possible. And then he finds a Source that doesn't call.
  • With Great Power Comes Great Insanity: Vond starts out more or less fine, but between having unrestrained magical power and being affected by the Calling, he starts to grow more and more paranoid and unstable.
  • Wrong Context Magic: The southern Small Kingdoms are incredibly poor in magic, and the very notion that it could be used in combat is unthinkable to the point where it would never occur to anyone. Sterren quickly realizes that this the only advantage he has against Semma's enemies, and it proves a doozy.
  • You Have Failed Me: As explained to Sterren, if a country loses a war, most of its ruling family/aristocracy can be of use in maintaining the infrastructure for the conquerors...but a failed warlord has proven himself no good to anyone, and so will assuredly be executed by the conquering powers.
  • Young and in Charge: Sterren is around eighteen or nineteen when he's shanghaied into becoming the Warlord, not much older for the following positions, and ends up advising or ordering around people considerably older than him.