The Black Coast is the start of a new fantasy series from Mike Brooks, whose sci-fi work I’ve previously enjoyed.This is something of a departure, though. Fewer sarcastic found family spaceship crews, more terrifying, dragon riding knights, Viking-esque warriors and imperial politics-by-assassination.
Some things have remained the same though. The complex weave of detailed, lovingly constructed worldbuilding. The rock solid characterisation, which makes the characters seem like, well, people. And the story, which grabs hold of you and won’t let go until it’s done - in my case, leaving me turning pages at 2AM when I should’ve been asleep instead.
The world is a sprawling one, filled with different, fascinating cultures. Perhaps the most familiar seeming is a feudal hierarchy, dominated by “Sars”, armoured knights who dominate and protect their local polity with martial prowess, and whose behaviours are theoretically circumscribed by an elaborate honour code. We catch some of the different rungs of their society - the aristocratic rulers, of course, but the reeve and the guardsmen and the master of hounds are all here, along with field workers - each with a set position in society. That said, that society is also surprisingly socially egalitarian. People may be defined by their rank, but who they choose to love, for example, is entirely in their own remit. And while the Sars seek to define themselves by the code of honour, it’s possible that their personal honour and the code may conflict, or that there may be interpretations that are more controversial than others. And they live under the aegis of a religion devoted to a God-King, whose demise generations before was followed by prophecies of his return. That faith is explored in some detail, and provides valuable context and depth to the characters
Oh, and the Sars, er, ride dragons into battle. Well, they seemed more like dinosaurs to me, lumbering, armoured behemoths that could crush individuals underneath them, or lash out with a tail and shatter a shield wall. But, yes, armoured men riding dragons. It’s just cool.
A cultural opponent of the Sars, are those they call Raiders. Those raiders are from a space where arable land seems to be relatively scarce. Where the climate is a lot colder. And with a tradition of taking to the seas, under the unforgiving eye of an uncaring god. The raiders have their own magic, and their own problems - from intra-clan infighting to demons walking the earth in the bodies of the dead. If they don’t have the armour of the Sars, they have a society which calls for each individual to be martially competent. And that society feels far more egalitarian in terms of rank - chiefdoms aren’t hereditary, and each individual has far less of a deferential attitude to their leaders. On the other hand, they seem far more socially restrictive than the lands of the Sars, a study in similarities and contrasts.
And then there’s lands outside the control of the God King, a sprawling mercantile empire filled with the energy of trade. It also hides claimants to the throne of the God-King, a savvy political move which is one of the central threads of the text, as the God-King’s descendants would rather that there weren’t any competing branches of the family tree. This is a space which seems to contain both staggering, opulent luxury and brutal, uncaring poverty, where authority is backed by money, or by brutal violence. It’s a land where people are thriving, but also one where it’s very easy to fall.
In any case, as you can see, it’s a diverse world, packed with histories and details and, well, fun.
Onto the boards step our players; a leader of Sars, a leader of Raiders, and, in the background, a political mastermind, and those she’s hunting.
The heart of the story, to me, is the relationship between the leaders of the Sars and the Raiders, Daimon Blackcreek and Saana Sattistutar. Thrown together as the heads of a joined community by happenstance, they’re struggling to make things work. To do that, they need to fight not only the prejudices and histories of their communities, but also their own personal biases. The people of the coast see the raiders as bloodthirsty savages, and the raiders see the people of the Sars as weirdly deferential, sources of wealth and renown. Neither group really feels like the other is, well, anything but an Other. That hurts them, as the story begins, and part of the narrative journey is watching those communities close ranks around each other, rather than against each other. Credit for that can go to Saana, whose brusque, no-nonsense style is a joy. She’s an experienced warrior, a chief who led her clan in escaping a dark and brutal danger at home, throwing them across the sea to an uncertain fate. And yet, even as she takes the greatest leap her people know, still Saana struggles ot understand Daimin and his people. What makes them so tolerant of things she finds repugnant, and what makes them react so strangely to basic common practises? I say struggles, I think something the book does well is portray Saana’s struggle with this. She knows that they have one chance to get the community to work together, to see each other as people, and if she (and indeed, Daimin) react poorly sometimes, they’re trying ot learn from each other as much as they can, trying to look past their own minds and into the eyes of a stranger. Saana’s a joy to read, especially when she is just done taking everyone’s crap. But a shout out too, to her relationship with her daughter, which has a complexity, a layered depth to it which speaks to an unheard history, whispered in the margins, and helps shape both of them on the page into more rounded people.
I also have a small delight for her interaction with the clan herbalist, but I’ll leave you to find that one out yourselves.
Daimon is younger, perhaps more impulsive, and driven to do the right thing. Maybe not the right thing by the code he lives for, but the right thing by the people he is sworn to protect. That there can be differences between the two is, itself, interesting. Still, he’s a man growing up fast, facing Raider axes of obsidian with hard steel and the help of a rampaging dinosaur. But his real bravery is in recognising what needs to be done, in thinking rather than opening his mouth immediately, in recognising his limitations, and strengths, and trying to do the right thing. They’re both good people, trying to herd a swarm of cats who are on the razors edge between just having a cuddle, and throwing down in a mix of bloody fur. Also, the cats are people, and are heavily armed with generational grudges. But if there are shades of grey here, they’re only as much as regular people, trying their best; not as grimdark as all that, and ot paladins, no, but real, grubby people, trying their best to stand up, be better than they are, and lift their people up with them. Watching the two clash and learn and clash again, and argue and scrabble toward an understanding is, really, a wonder - and it helps show that we are, in fact, better together.
There’s some equally interesting stuff happening with Tila, the God King’s sister, who is delightfully ruthless, pragmatic, and frustrated by the demands of a society which keep her from a throne that even her brother, sat upon it, thinks she would be better suited for. Tila is concerned for her family, and for her Empire, and won’t brook threats to the unity and survival of either - which is probably all I can say without spoiling things. I will add that we also get a viewpoint from Jeya, an orphan, whose own ruthlessness is rather more small scale, and whose compassion is, perhaps, rather more immediate. Jeya is young, but has had the soft edges knocked off of her by a hard life on the street - quite what she’ll do with an opportunity ro two which fall in her lap, is an open question.
In any case, each of these characters comes with their own drive, their own agenda, their own wants and needs, their own personality, voice and agency. In sum, they’re convincing as people, and you want to see them succeed - even when they’re not at all on the same page!
Speaking of which, the plot is an absolute firecracker. There’s multiple threads, as each of the viewpoint characters tries to push forward with their goals, and runs afoul of the others. But each thread is compelling in itself. I must admit to a preference for the scenes between Saana and Daimon, but it all works.. There’s the quiet, intimate moments here, and some flashes of genuine sorrow and joy, which may make you well up, or cheer along with our protagonists. There’s blood on the ground at scales ranging from close-in street fights to rampaging-dinosaur-bloodbath. There’s magic, quiet and flashy, and a sense of strangeness and wonder. And there’s that hook, that need to see what our heroes do next, which catches at you and drags you along, until, like me, you’re still reading at 2AM, because you want to know how it ends, and don’t want it to end.
This one is great, folks. Give it a read.