Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Kings of the Wyld - Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is the debut fantasy novel from Nicholas Eames. In a world ravaged by monsters, the mercenary bands who combat them are treated like rock stars. Some of them do it for the money. Others do it for the fame. And a band which rocked the foundations of the world is being drawn back together for one last gig.

The world s one split between the urban and rural. In the urban we have walled cities, towering monuments to ingenuity and skill. That they have rather thick walls is surely incidental. This is a civilisation based on the ruins of others – a near immortal race of bunny-eared savants put down the roots of the modern society, before their brutal annihilation in mysterious conflicts of the distant past. Their artefacts are as powerful as they are mysterious – which is to say, very. Still, it’s a land almost at peace. The vast and monstrous hordes of decades past have been broken by bands of mercenaries, mixing magic, swagger and violence together in an intoxicating blend that is almost, but not quite, heroism. This is a land not fit for heroes. But something is stirring, and this precision-crafted world provides a vivid and detailed backdrop for the machinations of the characters.

The band are a diverse bunch. They’re a mix of sociopaths restrained by their better natures, and/or those who use monster-hunting as an outlet for their violent urges, glory-seekers, money-grubbers and those who might be charitably described as a little unstable. They’re also experienced, or, if one is feeling less polite, middle aged. This band of hardened killers has stories written about them, and once shook the world – but they’ve broken up, settled down, and found their own causes; their reputation maintained by an audience which is now itself older, while newer, cooler bands capture the hearts of the young. Somewhere in there is a commentary on playing to large arenas for the love of the crowd, as opposed to the older craft of trudging around the country and working smaller venues in your murder of monstrosities. In any event, The Band are not, in a lot of ways, nice people. But mellowed, or possibly even broken, by their age and having survived everything that life threw at them, they’re amazing to read about. Gabe, the charismatic, subversive face of the band, if not the leader, is a wreck held together by love for his daughter. Their rogue is deadly with knives and lockpicks, but also suffers from having everything he’s ever wanted. The shield-man, our protagonist, manages to restrain his own penchant for brutal violence with the totem of his family, and his love of the rest of the band. This is a group of tired individuals, gone somewhat to seed; but if their past is now behind them, they still have the energy, the raw potential, to make things change. The chemistry between them is palpable, and the relationships they construct, or the histories that they carry with them are subtle, human things, which put wounds, scars and faces to the characters, and give them a certain depth and heart.

The plot – well, at base, it’s a journey. Physically, yes, as the band reforms and marches across the world in service to a larger goal. And that’s a rip-roaring adventure for sure, with political machinations, horrific monstrosities, kinetic combat and an emotional heart which hasthe potential to rip you open at the same time as it promises cathartic resolution. It’s gloriously bloody, honest stuff, which has a core of humanity which makes it affecting and real. But that’s the thing – alongside the physical journey, the swordfights, the daring escapes, the complaints about old injuries, there’s the personal journey as well. This is a band not entirely prone to self reflection, coming to terms with their own past, and the realisation that the tarnished images they built for themselves in their youth have been largely forgotten, feet of clay and all. This is a journey which challenges assumptions, and explores the ties that bind a group together – loyalty, truth, and the desire to make a lot of money.

It's an absolutely cracking debut, and one I recommend unreservedly. Give it a try. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blood of Assasins - R.J. Barker

Blood of Assassins is the second in R.J. Barker’s “The Wounded Kingdom” series. It follows Girton, sometime trainee assassin, sometime artiste, and occasional killer, as he investigates treachery, mendacity, magic, and the occasional murder, in a land broken by malevolent sorcery and internecine warfare.

The Girton of this story is one scarred by war. He’s spent the last few years out on the borders, fighting for pay. We last saw him as a damaged youth, but this is a man who has internalised his own wounds, then coated them over with armour, both metaphorical and physical. The agile sweeps of an assassin’s knives have been put away, and a Warhammer taken up instead. It’s a brute thing, an engine of war which breaks what it touches – and in that choice, the reader can see some of the struggle that Girton has internalised. There’s a rage bubbling up in there, and a sense of the cost of both fighting and running away. He travels with the woman who raised him, his Master, a woman whose unspeakable lethality is matched by a closely held affection for Girton. Their relationship has weathered storms, and the warmth of the complex bond between the two is a joy to behold. That Girton may feel a certain possessiveness makes sense; this relationship, almost parent-and-child, is the one point of stability in a life of disguise, double-bluff and murder. But the text lets him face up to the ugliness of that possessiveness, and isn’t afraid to explore the emotional landscape of the boy-becoming a man. In a life seemingly lacking much non-mentor affection, Girton is emotionally vulnerable, no matter the armour he wears, physical and mental. The loyalty and love Girton has for his master is the emotional heart of the text – or at least one of the lungs; the other is Girton’s relationship to Rufra, perhaps the only friend he has, now a king fighting a war for the throne.

Rufra and Girton work well together because of their history. They’re two boys who fought their way out of something terrible, and have grown into men trying to do the same. Rufra struggles with the demands of kingship – with being a good and just king, with the harsh realities of statecraft, and with balancing those against his own needs. Girton’s return, a reminder of a simpler time, may help him claw back some of the sense of self which being a leader, being a figurehead, takes away. The dialogue between the two, from angry words through to silent affirmations of friendship, is pitch perfect, and emotional depths are quietly and breathtakingly plumbed. This is a book which carries the weight of hurt and fire white hot rage in its prose, and leavens it with an intimacy and humanity which makes it impossible to put down.

Girton is, of course, drawn into the madness of the struggle for the kingdom of Maniyadoc,  land already broken and poisoned by sorcery. The atmosphere is one of conflict, of broken bodies and broken promises, where the social bonds that keep everything together have begun to fray – or, in some cases, been deliberately snapped. Maniyadoc continues to fascinate, as the social hierarchy - set in stone by the apparent death of their divinities – begins to disintegrate. The upheaval is not just political, but social, and you can see that in every common soldier starting to think that maybe the knights up on their horses don’t have any idea how to lead. Or in the new wave of priests quietly preaching the ideas of change. Or in the way the Landsmen, killers of magic users, willing to use their blood to return a land to life, will stand aside whilst the political uncertainties wear themselves out. This is a land in flux and crisis, without question, and one where the battles, where the knives in the dark and the swords on the field all come within the wider tapestry of compelling world-building.

The plot? Well, it’s intriguing stuff. Girton investigates a plot to kill a king, and win a throne. There’s espionage. Counter espionage. Betrayals. There’s love, for family and romantically thrown into the mix. There’s a lot of assumptions that get put on display and torn down, as the world rearranges itself over the course of the story. This is a story of mystery and murder, more than a whiff of LeCarré mixed into the cavalry charges and politicking. There’s blood, for sure, and sacrifice, and a feeling of costs and consequences for every inch of progress – and there’s some wonderfully human moments in the mix, and opportunities to grasp a little light and hope in the maelstrom. The scheming is suitably byzantine, the stakes both immediate and personal -the story, spellbinding. If you’ve made it this far, and you want to know if this sequel is worth it, take away an emphatic yes. It’s definitely worth picking this one up.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Kin - Snorri Kristjansson

Kin, from Snorri Kristjansson is a story of family, and what ties them together. Old grudges and old wounds, for certain, and if they’re bound by blood, that blood can also be spilled. It’s a detective story set in the era of Viking raiders, one where a glowering sky enfolds a group as much in bloody thrall to their pasts as enraptured by family affection. If the combination of Vikings, mystery and murder sound good, then this is the book for you.

This is a starker world, one where a household is one of the core units, where what can be farmed is the limit of one’s landholding. Kristjansson evokes the atmosphere of the period with remarkable skill. The crystal blue skies, the sense of isolation, the mixture of self-reliance and reliance on the settlement group. The farmland sits in a wider landscape with a stark beauty, giving a unique blend of humanity and wilderness at a time when that demarcation wasn’t yet fully realised. There’s a wonderful liminality to the setting as well; the Gods of the Norse have a presence here which is almost physical, their existence felt and accepted, if never entirely seen. The role of religion, of faith, is expored somewhat here as well – as a driver for peoples motivations, as a means of social control, and in its own purity and simplicity. Whether or not the Gods are real, this is a world which accepts that they are, and that acceptance permeates the thoughts and actions of the characters.

And what characters they are. Our focus is Helga Finnsdottir, the incisive ward of the Reginsson family. Helga is clever, certainly, but also capable of being smoothly charming and acting quickly. She carries some insecurities around her own position in the family, and those facets of self doubt are ones the text doesn’t shy away from. But she’s a solid investigator, one with an interest in the truth, even as she starts digging into family secrets. If Helga isn’t all sweetness and light, she’s certainly forceful enough to carry the reader along with her, and her own weaknesses are ones it’s easy to empathise with. One of the strands explored in the text is that of agency – as women, Helga and her female relatives could have been seen as marginalised, but here they’re a very active part of the family; while Helga carries some of the aura of an outsider, not tied to the family by bonds of blood, her adopted mother is a force of nature, one always able to achieve her goals through putting the right word in the right ear, through shared history or careful construction of narrative. That soft power is backed up by Reginsson, an ex-raider, now aging but still powerful in his own raw physicality. The Reginsson partnership is one of the highlights of the text – a match which clearly has decades of affection behind it, alongside a clarity born of experience, and a ruthlessness likewise.

But there’s a swarm of other characters here as well, as the Reginsson family comes together. The raiding son, with an eye for wine and another for women. The second son, a tower of a man with old wounds from his brother. The third son, a farmer, who may be carrying his own demons. The daughter, a vicious fighter with schemes of her own (and a husband from as far away as Sweden!). The Reginsson children are a complex bunch of marauders, and there’s always a sense - in the dialogue, in the way they pass each other mead, in who goes to do chores with whom  -  that they have their own agendas at play. Once the initial barrage of names is over, they swiftly grow their own personalities, sympathetic and otherwise, stepping out of our cultural preconceptions of the period to become living, breathing, scheming, stabbing, screaming, plotting, charming, friendly, murderous people.

To be honest, I would have been happy with Kin if it had just been a memoir of the Norse. The family dynamics, the close knit, often tense, occasionally poisonous relationships wrapped inside bonds of blood and affection make this an absolutely cracking family drama. But it’s a murder mystery too. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t say any more – but the mystery is carefully constructed and plausible, and the resolution reasonable, with a solid emotional payoff. It’s the relationships between characters which make the stakes, and make the situation feel real – and they’re top-notch. Somewhere in the dizzying spirals of ties between families is a killer, but quite who it is – in a world where violence floats close to the surface – is another question.

Anyway, Kin. Do you want to read it? The pagan Norse period may not be for everyone, but here it’s given surpassing depth and integrity. The characters are complex and believable, and the central mystery one which rewards careful reading – and working it out alongside Helga was great fun. If you’re in a Scandi-noir mood, and willing to leap back through the centuries, then this is a book which will reward a reading; I, for one, look forward to the further adventures of Helga Finnsdottir.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Planetfall is a sci-fi novel from Emma Newman, looking at the human colonisers of a new world, the public motives and private shames which brought them there, and what happens when submerged sins are brought up into the light.

Renata Ghalis is our protagonist in what, at first glance, appears to be a utopian world. Each of the inhabitants of this, the first human colony, live in balance with their environment. All of their collective and individual needs are met by a printer, which takes in raw material and dispenses whatever is required. Though the planet remains somewhat hostile – with flora and fauna hostile to the colonists – it seems mostly quiescent. It’s a place seemingly in harmony with itself. It’s also a settlement founded on faith; the expedition pathfinder, Suh-Mi, received the location of the planet in what she chose to see as a divine inspiration. Arriving, seeing that the planet exists and is safe for humanity seems to vindicate that faith. The colony is one of true believers, whose presence is itself a marker and a confirmation of what they believe. Though it’s not overly explicit, it’s interesting to see how the currents of realised faith move this community of scientists and explorers.

That said, there’s  suggestion of a secret at the heart of the colony, something which may change the way that they think of themselves. Renata has some understanding of this, and she’s a fascinating protagonist – torn apart by the need to discuss the truth, for altruistic and selfish reasons, and the need to contain it in the spirit of maintaining the balance of the colony.

If this secret isn’t the centre of Renata’s being, it’s at least part of the core.Still, we’re shown other sides to her. There’s the genuinely imaginative, inspirational engineer, a woman who could end plagues, or solve hunger – but whose faith and love brought her to the stars instead. There’s love – and the delicate tracery of old feelings is alive and well here, a passion which mimics Abelard and Heloise in its transcendence and its prosaic nature. Rentata had a great love, to be sure, and one she was defined by – but the pain has been occluded, if not faded, and Renata has, if not moved on, at least moved sideways. She has, of course, also got her own problems – managing the waste that people discard, assessing what can be fixed and what should go into the printer. There’s an edge there, and a genuinely affecting exploration of obsession and its effects – romantic and practical , Renata had her romance, and it shaped her life for good or ill – and what she does as a consequence is itself an obsession of sorts, her character a portrayal of someone functioning in a society in which she exists with an incredible secret pain.

Renata is damaged and vulnerable, but also incisive, intelligent and pragmatic. That these characteristics balance out, and shape a sympathetic protagonist, one we can both sympathise and empathise with, is part of what makes Planetfall such a triumph.

Because it is, let’s be clear, a thoughtful, well characterised, high concept sci-fi novel. When something arrives to disrupt the carefully maintained stasis of the system Ren and her people inhabit, it very quickly spills out of control. There’s examination of the small community dynamics – as the village of civilised colonists becomes ever-more a Salem of the future. But it’s matched by a genuine and affecting search for truth That this search runs into the central mystery of the founding of the colony though, and there’s a dichotomy between the need for clarity and the requirement, in an environment which can kill, for stability. It’s one the text approaches carefully, and in a nuanced fashion, letting the reader make up their own mind – as much as Renata does.

Is it any good? Absolutely. If it isn’t full of laser-swords or rampaging alien hordes, it’s bursting with quietly affecting human moments, and some interesting discussions on the concepts of faith and the alien. This is a book which is prepared to tell you a story, and one which has its share of tension – but also one which wants you engaged, thinking through the dilemmas and struggles of its actors. If you’re in the mood for some uncompromisingly intelligent, highly engaging sci-fi, give it a whirl. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Jade City - Fonda Lee

Jade City is the start of a new series by Fonda Lee. It feels like a blend of eighties kung-fu movies, gangster shows, and cunningly wrought, emotional family drama, blended together into one very appetising cocktail.

The world of Jade City is one with several layers. It’s set on an island which overthrew colonial rule a generation ago. There’s a legacy of occupation here, one where immediate family, clan and associates are all bound together strongly. The social strings which tie these groups together are forged in a legacy of struggle against an external oppressor. With that oppressor vanquished – or at least temporarily removed from the equation – the society is out of equilibrium. The text isn’t afraid to embrace the exploration of clan based societies after declaring independence, and it’s all the better for it. This is a land where the government is beholden to families, and those families drive the political agenda. If there are a few institutions not under familial control, they’re the exception. This is problematic, and the text addresses it to some degree - the melting pot of post-independence prosperity is on the boil, as a second generation comes into power, and attempts to work out how to keep it. That generation has a certain familiarity, leaping offstage and screen at the reader.

The leaders of the central clans, children of fighters for independence, are clever, ruthless people. They have a trade in Jade, which grants greater physical power to its owners – superhuman speed, strength, acuity. They’re ready to do anything to protect this trade from outsiders, and from each other. The thematic blend is one of gangster flicks and kung-fu movies, where the hard-souled line of “Just business” meet the operatic acrobatics of combat as-art. Which is to say, that the leaders of these clans, these owners of socio-economic respectability, are deadly. Fast-paced, hard-souled killers, skating on the edges of respectability. This isn’t a generation willing to settle down into rich respectability, but one determined to flex its economic muscle along with the physical, in the name of family destiny.

If the idea of gangster families running an island for profit, and defending their privileges with supernatural martial arts sings out to you, then this is probably the right book.

That the action is backed by some strong and nuanced character work is certainly not incidental. We follow one of the two ruling clans of the nascent nation, watching the conflicts between those who created independence, those who have to live in it, and those who have to live with them. It’s a family drama, in some ways, filled with past slights and future hopes. Still, the people with whom we spent our time are, between being terrifying exemplars of superhuman strength and agility, no less human than the rest of us. The youngest of the family has returned from a sojourn abroad, somewhat chastited and perhaps even more unrepentant, determined to cut her own path away from the family business. The middle child is fast, impulsive, unforgiving, a trained killer in the service of the family, with a ready smile and a hard loyalty for those he follows, and those he leads. Their elder brother is cool, collected and troubled, living up to the example of a father gently shuffled out of the way, working forever to live up to the image of a national hero.

The interaction between family members, and their followers, is masterful. It shows off the bonds of loyalty and obligation, and doesn’t flinch awy from troubled waters. This is a family. It’s complicated, damaged, full of anger and unrealised ambition alongside the love – but one with a warmth and loyalty at the heart which keep the characters sympathetic and human.

Plot-wise, it’s…well, there’s a lot going on. Territory seizures. Hand to hand fighting. The question of sovereignty and how a nation should be governed (and by whom). There’s old grudges to be settled, heroism, and new feuds being started. Jealousy and rage are here in spades, alongside faith, trust and humanity. It’s a complex stew of characters with emotional depth and their own motives, mixed in with some kick-ass fight scenes and moments of tension with a razor’s edge.
This is a wonderfully drawn work, bringing a flawed, powerful family to life within an imaginatively detailed world, embracing some hard-hitting, bloodily realised action. It’s a very exciting work – you owe it to yourself to give it a try.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7) - James S.A. Corey

Persepolis Rising is the seventh in James S.A. Corey’s  ‘Exapnse’ grand space opera series. The Expanse has always fused hard-hitting action with relatable characters in a sweeping cosmos- and that tradition continues here.

Persepolis Rising is, at least in part, a book about legacy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also a book about change, about insurgency, about family, about hard fought victories and bitter defeats. But the idea of legacy was one which stuck with me as I turned the pages. Holden and Naomi, two of the central protagonists of the series, are starting to feel the weight of their years. They’ve fought the good fight and saved the world multiple times, but heroism isn’t an especially forgiving gig. They’re tired – even Holden’s relentless idealism has had the sharp edges filed off it over the years. This consideration of what happens to folk heroes after they’ve done their time in the saddle is fascinating. Legacy is also a concern of the antagonist – an individual determined that humanity will be prepared to face the challenges thrust upon it as it enters a wider universe. Where Holden and Naomi have a legacy, this is a more targeted approach to immortality. Here is an individual who wants humanity to survive and throve, and believes that having one leader, with one vision, rather than a multiplicity, is the way to achieve this. It’s slightly terrifying to find that the arguments presented are plausible, the ideology resonant, if also repulsive. Here is a person with a grand, sweeping vision of humanity, one which is a response to the factors driving a new galactic society. That the vision is backed by atrocities, and the society by military force, is almost ancillary.

If Holden and the Rocinante crew are aging heroes, their opposition is energised, vital, and downright plausible. They’re not ravening hordes of unreasoning zealots, but individuals prepared to put themselves on the line for humanity, just as our protagonists are. That lets us see them as sympathetic and human, as part of the whole, rather than as an ‘other’ – and that very humanity is part of what makes them so relentlessly terrifying.

Anyway. Many of my old favourites are here – Holden, Naomi, Amos and the rest of the Rocinante gang. Seeing them react to sea-changes in their relationships, in the way which they interact with each other, is delightful. They’re a family, yes, but one with the familiar level of squabbles and strife. At the same time, they’re also able to back each other to the hilt. Reading about the Rocinante again is like a warm bath – comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable. We also get the point of view of one of their antagonists – which is humane, relatable, charming, and as a consequence, rather worrying. Sitting in the head of a man with ideals isn’t as strange as all that - witness our time with Holden. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a complex individual, on willing to do anything in service of their goal – and it’s a point of view which by its very every-day humanity evoked unease in me as a reader. I’d recommend the book for this nuanced portrayal of an opponent alone; that it mixes with a loving and unflinching gaze on the crew of the Rocinante, and their own slow decline into obscurity, makes it downright wonderful.

Plot-wise, this – well, it’s the Expanse. There’s some marvellously choreographed space-battles, if those are your thing. The tension, the sense of velocity and human cost, kept me on the edge of my seat. The feeling that both words and actions mattered was constant, and as the stakes and effects mounted, the narrative kept me committed to seeing it through. Alongside these are some compelling scenes of struggle on the ground – and the text isn’t shy about exploring themes of collaboration, terrorism, the effects and aftermaths of actions on all sides. It’s sharply observed, bloody-edged work, and it’s certain to keep you wondering what happens next.

As with preceding books, this one comes with some big ideas. There’s galaxy-spanning transport networks, and discussions about how far one can go in service of humanity. There’s grand visions and ideas that surge off the page like a fire in the brain. But they’re backed by quieter, complex moments, where everyone makes their own decisions. Where the ‘bad guys’ are heroes in their own minds, and where even the heroes have to make hard choices and bear the consequences.

Is this worth reading? If you’re new to The Expanse series, you may want to go back to the beginning, and see if its blend of hard sci-fi, human drama and high concept is for you. If you’re all caught up – then yes, you need to read this. It throws open entirely new questions about what’s going on, and what will happen next, and it does so by exploring big ideas through very human experiences, and a willingness to explore both rewards and costs. It’s an absolute cracker, and a must-read for any fan of the series. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Time Of Dread: Blog Tour, Extract and Review!

We've been talking about John Gwynne positively for a while now; Wrath, the last book in his The Faithful and the Fallen series had all the blood, battles and emotional conclusions one could hope for, and hearing of the start of a new series, a successor set in the same world but centuries later, left us waiting with great anticipation. 

As a result, we're very excited to be part of John Gwynne's "A Time Of Dread" blog tour, along with some other brilliant bloggers. You'll see their twitter handles on the left. If you want to learn more about this new series (which we can assure you is epic stuff), then we'd suggest casting an eye over their twitter feeds on the dates mentioned. 

Anyway, being part of the blog tour, we've got something special for you - an extract from A Time of Dread. Well, actually, it's the entire first chapter, which follows Bleda, young prince of one of the horse tribes, as he encounters the Ben-Elim, semi-divine messengers and now iron rulers of much of the world, for the first time. 

If that whets your appetite, we've also republished our review beneath the extract, so that you can decide whether you liked it as much as we did. 

Now dip your toes into the world of A Time of Dread...


We'll admit, that first chapter packs a serious punch. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as we did! If the extract captured your attention, you'll find a review for the full story below, and you can follow along on the rest of the blog tour too!

A Time of Dread - Full Review

A Time of Dread is the first in a new series of fantasy by John Gwynne, whose ‘Wrath’ I reviewed earlier in the year. Gwynne has a reputation for producing high quality epic fantasy, with some compelling characterisation and…rather a lot of blood. I can safely say that in A Time of Dread, that reputation is burnished further. 

The book is a follow-up of sorts to his earlier series, taking place a century after the climatic battles and social changes of ‘Wrath’. Though a century feels like a long time, the longevity of some of the world’s inhabitants – giants, semi-divine seraphim and their nemeses - suggests the possibility of the return of a few familiar faces. But having read the previous series isn’t necessary; though there were a few times when it added extra depth to some interactions, the shift in time means that this is designed to work as a stand-alone series from the get-go, and at that, I suspect it succeeds. 

The land is, at least nominally, at peace. A large swathe of it is ruled by the winged Ben-Elim, apparently servants of an absent god, who followed their enemies back into the world to hunt them down. The Ben-Elim have a cultural advantage as rulers – their legend has been put out before them, and the malign nature of their enemy isn’t really in question. They flatly state that they were the servants of a god, and propound and propagate his lore. They’re also, broadly speaking, fair – they’re encouraging people to live safe, peaceful lives, which helps prevent the abuses of nobility against the common man. Mostly though, they’re doing this for their own reasons – a peaceful dominion allows them access to people and resources, to continue prosecuting their ongoing war against their less friendly kin. The Ben-Elim are goal oriented, and that has its own problems. They’re prone to rigidity, and to being prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone (else) if they feel it will help them achieve their aim. After all, defeating the more unpleasant flying monstrosities will lead to a safer humanity – so in the meantime, a bit of impressment or the occasional massacre is for the greater good. 

That makes them a great, conflicted set of characters to root for. They’re definitely fighting against an absolute, horrifying evil. But their efforts to end that fight are horrifying I their own way. The humans they’ve brought in around them are similarly conflicted. Some question the rigidity of Ben-Elim rule, and others, drawn from cultures being drawn under the benevolent boot of Ben-Elim rule, wonder why they let these monsters be in charge in the first place It’s a complex situation, and one which Gwynne portrays with sympathy and an unflinching eye for the consequences of “the greater good”. 

There’s also a politically separate group of humanity, out on their own and causing trouble. They feel like the Big Damn Heroes of the operation, without oversight from the Ben-Elim, living free and disrupting the bad guys that they and the Ben-Elim have in common. They suffer from a lack of resource and direction, seemingly, but they make a strong contrast in the forces of ‘good’. I’d like to see their fissures as much as those of their putative allies, but hopefully we’ll see that they’re not a united front either.

The bad guys are…well, they’re bad. The antithesis to the Ben-Elim, they’re full-on cultist-acquiring, scheming, plotting, indiscriminate slaughter bad guys. If the Ben-Elim are the perils of good intentions and an overly-taught system, their opponents are evidence of why that system exists, and they’re not nice people at all. If I have a complaint, it’s here – the bad guys are bad. Sure, the good guy have different strands of discussion over which brand of goodness they’re going to follow, in the authoritarian/libertarian mode, but their enemies represent a unifying threat – they’re so genuinely appalling, I haven’t worked out yet how they get their cultists to sign up. It’d be nice to see the same level of complexity that we see amongst the Ben-Elim in their direct opposition. 

Character-wise, there’s some interesting people in play. I’d have liked to see more of their internal monologue. Some may be familiar from the earlier series, but some – like the Drem, a trapper youth in the far wilds of the empty area known as the Desolation – are entirely new. Gwynne has a firm grasp of characterisation – Drem, for example, has mannerisms and an internal monologue which make him feel awkward and a bit confused by social nicety, whilst also explaining to the reader how his viewpoint is constructed, and letting us sympathise with it. Others, like Riv, a trainee under the Ben-Elim, give us an insight into their culture, and a degree of empathy to that culture by way of what they’re going through. Riv is smart, funny, articulate – and given to the occasional blind rage. It’s to Gwynne’s credit that he can craft characters like this sympathetically, and make the reader feel alongside them, and understand the travails which they go through. 

There’s some nifty character work here, especially as it opens up for longer term arcs in follow up books; I’m looking forward to seeing both how our protagonists from this volume interact with each other, and with any new characters in the next book. In the meantime, they’re convincing as people, with the sort of small troubles familiar to anyone, and the sort of larger causes and ideals which make them feel more heroic. Once again though, it’d be lovely to see something from the eyes of our putative villains – the book doesn’t suffer from the lack, mind you, but I’d love to get an understanding of their ideology. 

The plot…well, it’s solid. There’s a slow ramp up as we’re introduced to the world and to the stakes. By the end, there’s sword fights, dread cultists, raids, blood everywhere, a little bit of magic – and, on a broader level, the suggestion that the world is about to change, not necessarily for the better. There’s some great emotional payoffs, not just at the close, but spaced through the text. They, along with the kinetic and vivid combats, and the closely observed characters, kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped for, you know, food. 

In the end, this is a precursor to other volumes – and I imagine that the time of dread will open into something more sprawling and ominous. It’s a great start though, giving us high stakes action, believable characters, and a world which carries some of the complexities and shades of grey of our own, whilst still feeling fresh and imaginative. 

If you’re coming to this series off the back of Gwynne’s last one, I’d say this will fit your expectations – smart and well-crafted epic fantasy. If you’re coming in without the benefit of that series, don’t panic. It still works on its own, and is still a great read. In either case, it’s a rewarding read.