Sometimes it seems as if every possible approach to fantasy has already been done a thousand times. So it’s lovely to find a new author capable of putting an original slant on the genre, whilst also having a lot of fun. In some ways this is a conventional story – young man with powers and a special sword, a monarchy under threat, active gods and goddesses – but it constantly took me by surprise, and combined some glorious punch-the-air moments with laugh-out-loud humour. Even the opening, which seems to be heading in one direction, veers straight off in a different one almost immediately. I love a book which surprises me, so this was a very good start.
Here’s the premise: a young man wanders into town carrying a particularly striking sword, a religious artifact. He immediately becomes the focus for various factions who want to protect him or relieve him of the sword or execute him or embroil him in their own plots. The story follows his attempts to pursue his own agenda (finding someone to tell him about the sword he carries), while avoiding the manipulations of his enemies and his apparent friends.
And this is one of the striking features of the story: it’s truly hard to work out who is on which side, or even how many different sides there are. And, rather amusingly, the characters have the same problem. So they inch tentatively around each other, set tests and traps for each other, and occasionally end up fighting each other.
The three main characters are very nicely drawn. Taelien is the sword-carrying visitor who would give a life-assurance salesman palpitations. Whenever a particularly difficult challenge is presented, with almost zero chance of surviving, never mind winning, Taelien goes into “Hell, yes! Bring it on!” mode. Being the world’s most risk-averse person imaginable myself, this gave me palpitations at first, but by the end of the book, I was going “Hell, yes!” too. Taelien is a great character, especially in combat.
Lydia is the “Let’s think this through” person, a high-ranking sorceress at court, who endlessly rationalises everything. When presented with a new kind of magic that she doesn’t fully understand, she devises ways to find out more about it and adapt it into her own magic. Smart lady.
Jonan falls neatly into the plucky sidekick role, and is also the useful guy whose magical bag of tricks gets the others out of a lot of messes. Although, to be fair, he also gets them into some of those messes. One problem I had with the three of them was their youth. They all seem to be abnormally experienced and mature for their supposed ages, and Lydia in particular was problematic. I found it hard to believe that someone of barely twenty could hold such an important and trusted position at court, especially as she was an outsider.
I have to mention the magic system. I’m sure people will compare it with Brandon Sanderson, and to say it’s detailed and clever and well thought-out really doesn’t do it justice. I didn’t get many of the nuances, because I’m too lazy to make the effort to understand these things, but even so, it always made sense to me. There were a few moments where a particularly tricky situation was resolved with an unexpected magical twist, which nevertheless made logical sense: very, very satisfying.
The other highlight in the excellent world-building was the role of gods and goddesses, who appear to take an active part in the lives of mortals. Or do they? This is another area where it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s going on, and what is real and what isn’t. Then there’s the interesting question of what precisely a god is: if a being has godlike powers, does that make him a god? This question isn’t fully resolved, but I like this much better than having everything spelled out.
The writing style is very wordy, and there were places where I would have liked a little less introspection and analysis from the characters, and a little more trusting the reader to get it. In the early chapters, in particular, where the three main characters are tiptoeing round each other, I could have done with a lot less “If this… but then if that…” from them. However, it’s an easy read, with more than enough action to keep me turning the pages.
The climax is nicely dramatic and very enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations to satisfy the most demanding palate. The wind-down at the end, however, felt a bit rushed, and there were one or two things airbrushed over without much explanation (Vorain’s escape, for instance). However, these things might be explained in the next book. An original and entertaining book. Four stars.