Publisher – Harper Voyager
Published – Out Now
Price – £8.99
There was time when the Red Gods ruled the land. The Dark Lady and her horde dealt in death and blood and fire.
That time has long since passed and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. The only blood spilled is confined to the bored where vigilantes known as Wolves protect their kin and territory at any cost.
But after the death of his life, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable
Vulnerable to the blood-thirsty greed of the Warrior King Liris and the Mireces army waiting in the mountains
I like surprises in my reading. Like a good cover version, I want to hear something familiar but also new. Simply swapping a few vocals around isn’t enough I want something that I just don’t see coming. I mention this in passing because this was part of the Subjective Chaos awards that initially looked like a very traditional epic fantasy but instead combines great plotting, worldbuilding and characters in very surprising ways.
The story centres on three very different cultures. The Mireces appear your standard evil simple Mountain Kingdom performing human sacrifice often from those they enslave to their gods in particular the Dark Lady. Across them is Rilpor your standard medieval kingdom with a larger army and elderly King Rastoth his dutiful son Janis and his rebellious son Rivil and these two countries watch each other closely. But with an unexpected event that reminds me of WW1 being triggered by the death of Arch Duke Ferdinand starts a cascade of events that lead to the cold war becoming a lot hotter and bloodier. But rather than technology aiding the battles to come now we have the medical forces of the Red Gods and those of the Dancer.
Stephens puts us straight into the action by focusing on the viewpoints of multiple characters on all sides. It’s a real talent that everyone comes across as a real solid individual. The Priestess of the Red Gods Lanta is completely despicable, but we also see her internal battle to be respected by the male warriors and it’s a match of wits as she works to establish her position. Amongst the Rilporian we get to see a variety of characters, but standouts are Crys a new Captain in the King’s capital happier to play cards and have a laugh but also knows his fighting and how to lead. In contrast we have Tara the first woman to be a Captain working on the front-line border – diligent; more than capable and constantly having to justify her position against men often promoted more for their wealth than their ability. And in-between both are the Wolves who appear in some ways to be just simple village folk but who combine fierce hand to hand combats skills; spirituality and views on gender and sexuality that while shocking to Rilporians appear far more in keeping with our own age. The focus is on Dom a man cursed to receive the messages of the Gods who is being driven into the events to play his part even if he wishes to turn away and an escaped slave Rillirin feeling the Mireces untrusted by the villagers and hiding secrets that have huge ramifications for everyone.
Every character has their own secrets and we see how they interrelate. Not all can be trusted; their statuses will shift and as things escalate we see that there is a wider game with the forces of Dark and Light moving their own pieces around and often appearing to care little for who will suffer from this. That each character stands out and each plot thread is equally interesting adding variety from murder mystery to court politics to vast military battles you want to move across the land to see what is happening. I really was impressed how the story didn’t go for the obvious and often subverted the standard scenes I’ve come to sigh when I read fantasy. Attempted assaults on women; human sacrifices romances all don’t quite play out how you expect. I’m really pleased to see a world where men and women have agency; interact not just as potential romantic partners and respect each other’s role in their society. When violence comes it is gruesome and you’ll feel the flesh tear (men will cross legs) and that can be a simple one on one fight to two armies simply trying wipe each other out. The story leaps from huge scale to the personal really well and by the end of the first novel you sense there is so much more to find out about his world…not least can anyone survive it!
I’m very glad to have picked this up now and will be looking forward to the sequel out in August. If you’re looking for some epic fantasy which don’t take the easy options and reward you with adventure with a large dollop of action then this is a series I think you should be reading.