Book Review: Stranger Back Home by E.L. Haines

I want to start this book review of Stranger Back Home by E.L. Haines by saying that this book exceeded my expectations. It is the first fantasy comedy I read in a long while, and it did not disappoint me at all. I’m glad I read and reviewed it, because E.L. Haines is undoubtedly an author you should follow if you are a true fantasy nerd. This book is by far unique in its genre. It obeys every rule of classic storytelling while presenting elements that root it deeply in our own world. The main character is witty, smart, a Tyrion Lannister with magic at his disposal. I doubt you’ll feel bored in Sparrow’s company. This book is perfect for fans of high fantasy settings and, I dare say, gamers!

(Review contains spoilers.)

Book review Stranger Back Home

Stranger Back Home official cover art
Stranger Back Home official cover art

Summary: Sparrow receives a text message from his half-brother, which shouldn’t be happening. Cell phones don’t exist in DragonsMouth. Apparently, there’s something about Sparrow’s father’s last will that causes chaos to ensue at home. Sparrow’s step-mother goes missing, and during the quest to find out what is going on, Sparrow reunites with an unlikely gang… to worsen the situation.

Genre: High Fantasy, Comedy

Audience: Adult

Themes/potential trigger warnings: not-racism racism, good “bad jokes,” ridiculousness all around

Rating Breakdown

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review, and I’d like to thank the author for this opportunity!

Rating breakdown:

  • World-building: 1★
  • Characters (cast & development): 1★
  • Plot (pacing, stakes, and execution): 1★
  • Themes: 0.5★
  • Prose: 1★

Final rating: 4.5 rounded up to 5/5

The World-Building

I was not familiar with Sparrow’s adventures. So, when the book began, I spent a couple of minutes wondering how this character seems to hang out in the modern world before entering a place where orcs can mug you. The world-building wasn’t complicated, and you get a hang of things fairly quickly. It felt like playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I’m not even a fan of the game, but every character had a set role and abilities easy to understand. What I didn’t expect were the footnotes whenever a concept, or magic, or even a race, needed further explanation. To be honest, glancing from story to footnote isn’t my jam, but it reminded me of older fantasy books. If it were up to me, I’d rather have all the elements of world-building directly in the story to avoid too much “telling.” Ultimately, this is a choice the author made, and I respect it.

You’ll sometimes wonder why you have to know certain details and why you’re following almost everything Sparrow does. But in the end, everything unravels so well, like carefully crafted puzzle pieces, that you’re glad all the details were there in first place. DragonsMouth is a city with dangerous lore, diverse races and factions, organized politics. Despite the high fantasy setting, you’ll feel you could live in such a world.

The Characters

Sparrow may be the main character, but the secondary characters are just as epic. Everyone has their own mannerisms, speech, views on social matters—this is possibly the first fantasy book where I didn’t find a single character I hated. The cast is what I would define diverse in a high fantasy setting, considering you have gnomes, dwarves, kobolds, wizards—literally everyone is different, also regarding their social status. Both the main character and his sidekicks grow throughout the novel, some in a more subtle way compared to others. However, you see they came from point A and reached point B. The book counts over 60 chapters, and it was great to see the author didn’t fall into the filler chapter trap. Every line serves a purpose, a character, and their development.

On a side note, male authors often get dissed for how they write female characters, but E.L. Haines nailed this part. Evalina, Pink, Jane-Lindsay—secondary characters for sure, but they were never sexualized or rendered less important compared to secondary male characters.

The Plot

E.L. Haines is the first self-published fantasy author I found who knows how to structure his story properly. Stranger Back Home follows all five stages of a good narration, which makes for a pleasant, complete read. The pacing was appropriate, following a five-arc structure (starting point, disruption, adventures, resolution, ending point). Although this is a comedy, the author doesn’t take shortcuts or give plot armor to his characters. People get shot, burned, stabbed, kidnapped… Even when the humor takes you to a Johnny English verse, the stakes are high, and you fear for some characters.

I particularly loved the way the conflict ended. When the Actors’ Guild arrested the Provisional Empire officials for unlicensed poetry, I just cackled. Because I remembered wondering why the hell I needed to know so much about their guild when Sparrow needed a new card. Or Evalina a manager.

The Themes

For a fantasy comedy, Stranger Back Home still brings to the table topics important in the real world. The author puts emphasis on how eradicating one evil may just pave the way for a new one.

Racism comes up quite a lot in this book, and this is where I am not afraid to say, Stranger Back Home is a novel for smart people. You can easily feel turned off by the amount of times Sparrow repeats he’s not racist, all the while displaying racist behavior. This is probably Sparrow’s major weakness, but it also makes him relatable. How many times did we come across people who did not realize they were doing the opposite of what they claimed in real life?

My only issue with this theme is that it was redundant in the way it appeared often near the beginning of the story and then reappeared near the end. To me, it felt like the author wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding behind his words, but writing for a smart audience means you need to trust said audience fully.

The Prose

E.L. Haines’ works are books you call own voices. There’s uniqueness in his craft and background. Despite the many pop culture references in the story or the obvious mentions of other fantasy works, which must have inspired him on some level, Haines doesn’t copy or absorb other authors’ styles. Considering the book is written from Sparrow’s POV—and the guy likes himself—sometimes I found him very pedantic. This is where characterization blends in with the way the story is told, but the positive side of it is that we don’t get lost in lengthy descriptions. There were a few recaps I felt were unnecessary, because they either referred to what I presume are other books in the series, or they didn’t seem as important for the plot execution. I can’t say for sure since this is the first book I read from E.L. Haines, which is why the prose, too, gets a full star from me.

A recommended read and a talented author.