Darksoul is the second in Anna Stephen’s ‘Godblind’ series, the first of which was very well received last year. Darksoul, though, is something else. It’s a tightly plotted , bloody, emotionally convincing, massively affecting work of fantasy. This is a book which wants to make you feel. It mostly doesn’t want to make you feel good, but that’s how this goes. It’s got prose carrying an emotional payload which is a kick in the groin and a stab in the heart at once. It’s going to make you feel atrocities at work, feel betrayal, feel the liquid stain of blood on the floor – and then give you a contrast of hope, of people acting better than they have any right to be, of heroism and selflessness against a dark background.
This is a book which is prepared to embrace the bleak. It looks full in the face of the horror of war, and doesn’t flinch. But if that horror carries mitigation, that’s also here.
Darksoul’s world is one of conflict. The central focus for this book is the siege of the city of Rilporin. The defenders are outnumbered, unable to call for reinforcements, but holding out hope for rescue anyway. The city is battered, for sure. There’s a sense that the military command is hamstrung by a civilian aristocracy whose main concern is their own necks. That said, the reader can see heroes here, people standing up for their home and their beliefs, in the face of appalling odds and the likelihood of a horrifying fate if the city falls. There’s a sense that Rilpor is the idea of its citizens, of the civilians prepared to put themselves in the line of fire for ideals of a nation. On the other side of the siege, though, the same attraction to ideals is what powers their enemies.
Say what you will about the Mireces and their penchant for brutal torture and blood sacrifice, (and it’s presented here in a graphic and repellent fashion) they have an iron-clad conviction that they’re performing the will of their deities. The text can use that conviction to explore interesting ideas; for example how far do you go to defend an idea, and do the words of a god define the morality of their followers. There’s a thoughtful intellectual framework here underpinning the story. As a side effect, the reader is unable to say that the Mireces are just slavering villains; we’re forced to see them as people. People doing awful things, yes, but the idea that they’re just monsters is challenged in their ideological loyalties. They don’t feel like what they’re doing is wrong, even as the Rilporians look at their actions with horror.
There’s certainly plenty of time to examine those actions – this is, after all, a siege. The high-wire tension and pressure that comes with that is wonderfully evoked as we study the besieged. They live at a perpetual slow boil, wondering when the next attack will come, or the next, or the next. That tension runs through every interaction, as officers try to motivate soldiers slipping on the edges of despair, and commanders try to convince their officers to take troops back onto the wall one more time (and the time after that). This tension cranks up throughout the book – each page is one more turn of the screw, for the reader as well as the characters trapped behind city walls. Darksoul a beautifully appalling and thoroughly convincing portrayal of a city under siege, and it gets there by vibrantly portraying the characters that make up that siege, on both sides of the wall. Rilporin, with its towers and tall gates, Rilporin is alive – and the Mireces camp, with its fanatics and bloodsplashed on the earth, is equally so.
Speaking of characters – there’s quite a few familiar faces here, though not always in their familiar roles. Dom, the calestar, is a study in horror. As his connection to the liminal, to the divine, has increased, his sanity has lessened. Unable to act other than at the will of the gods, he’s washed away in submission to wills not his own. With a mind broken, and adapting to that break, Dom is a person capable of anything. That typically doesn’t mean anything good, though. Seeing the changes wrought on his flesh is repellent, and given his role in Godblind, downright horrifying. A good man, of sorts, trying his best, has become something other, something which sits outside our framework of meaning, and acts as it feels it must. Dom’s madness reeks on the page, pervades every line he speaks and every action he takes – and the wreckage of the man that he was rips through the reader even as it devastates those around him.
We get some more time with Crys as well; he’s still as rambunctious as ever, bonhomie hiding a cmplex character whose emotional responses are socially circumscribed, and all the more believable for that. As Crys tries to work out what he wants, and how he feels, , the raw emotion comes ofdf the page alongside a complex, believable persona. Crys is friendly, charming, and ever-so-slightly detached – but his personal struggles behind the façade of a career officer ring true, and give him a depth which made me care about what would happen to him next.
They’re not alone of course. Stephens gives us an ensemble piece this time around. Each of the characters, from the master mason determined to hold the city together, to the Rilpor captain determined to do her duty in the face of the end of everything she knows, to the Mireces themselves – they all have a heart, a breadth and emotional depth which gives them a feeling of being people, which makes you care about them, and feel with them. A word for the Mireces in particular, who manage to be vile people doing utterly unspeakable things, but don’t feel like mustachio-twirling villains. Theirs is a culture of blood, conflict and horror, and what they know is what they propagate, with the backing of their divinities. They’re unflinchingly appalling, but have a complexity and resonance which means they’re far more than caricatures.
This gives the conflict between Mireces and Rilporian more weight, and if I always knew what side I was on, the Mireces were believably consistent in their desire for blood, skulls and revenge.
Which, I have to say, there’s plenty of. The siege, as I said earlier, is the focus. If the slow burn of tension between attacks lets us into the characters world, the struggles of the conflict are brutally kinetic – hard, fast, and bloody conflicts. This is a world where wounds kill, where captivity isn’t going to end well, and where anyone can die. Arrows wing down out of the sky and pick off a friend, someone you’ve shared a chapter or two with. Or someone pushes a ladder off a wall, and the bloke you thought sounded interesting a few pages back falls screaming to their death. This is unflinching, unrelenting in its description of the horrors of war, its justifications and necessities.
It’s not all blood and fire and tears, for which I’m grateful; it contrasts those darker moments with opportunities for hope, for forgiveness, even for love – but it’s not afraid to show what people will do for those things, and what the costs are. Those costs are wonderfully portrayed, from the glint in a fire as it tears through a building, to the hot stink of blood when an arrow punches out someones eye. There’s always a price, and Darksoul wants us to accept what it is.
In the final analysis, people will want to know if this is the sequel they wanted after Godblind. That’s a wholehearted yes. It has taut, compelling plotting, and the characters will make you feel for them, for their struggles, their lives, their deaths. The story is an emotional rollercoaster, which will put your heart in your mouth and keep it there, page after page after page. I won’t tell you how the journey ends, but I promise you this – you won’t regret taking the risk, taking the ride. Godblind is powerful, evocative fantasy, and if you came out of the first book in the series wanting more, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.