Steph Swainston’s third novel set in the Fourlands is “The Modern World” (retitled “Dangerous Offspring” for its US release). For the past few years the Insects have been kept at bay, the Castle’s forces keeping them from expanding their Paperlands. However, the armies of the Fourlands have been content with just stopping the Insects invading, they haven’t attempted to win back any of their former territory, at least until Frost – the Castle’s immortal architect – comes up with a plan to reclaim some of the Paperlands. The Insects can’t swim or so she sets about the construction of a giant dam across a river that forms the border of the Paperlands. Once the lake behind the dam is filled the insects there will be drowned, and once the waters subside the Fourlands’ armies can march in and reclaim the territory. As the dam nears completion military forces from across the Fourlands as well as all the Castle’s immortals gather to prepare to strike. The plan is a good one based on their knowledge of the Insects but some unforeseen events mean that the Fourlands end up in more danger than ever and the entire resources of the continent are forced to gather to withstand a potentially devastating Insect assault. The danger is so great that the Emperor himself is forced to ride out from the Castle for the first time in millennia to leads the Fourlands’ armies.
Meanwhile, the novel’s narrator Comet has his own problems as he is tasked by his immortal friend Lightning to search for Lightning’s teenaged daughter Cyan, who has run away from her minders on a visit to Hacilith, the Fourlands’ biggest and most dangerous city. A spoiled young noblewoman with little experience of the real world but a big sense of entitlement and thirst for new experiences and adventure, Cyan finds herself quickly out of her depth and Comet is forced to venture into Hacilith’s underworld (a place he is very familiar with) to retrieve her. As the time for the strike against the Insects approaches Comet and Cyan then join up with the Fourlands army and Cyan increasingly clashes with her father, forcing him to confront how out-of-touch with mortals he has become during his thousands-plus years of life.
Although the main part of the novel is taken up by the two plots described above, there are a number of interesting subplots, including a venture by Comet and Cyan to the world of Epsilon where they are pursued between worlds by a demonic hunt in the novel’s most thrilling sequence. There are also three particularly good flashbacks, the novel opening with Comet reliving the memories of a past disaster in the Insect war, as well as two interludes unusually narrated by someone other than Comet – Lightning reminiscing about his tragic first marriage and the Castle’s Doctor Rayne telling how she came to be immortal.
After the good but slightly disappointing second book this is a definite return to form. Swainston returns to the Insect War that is at the heart of the series and the battle scenes are the best in the trilogy, while the intrigue between the immortals is equally entertaining and has a direct impact on the battles. Refreshingly, although it makes a couple of appearances in the story, Epsilon and the worlds of the Shift don’t have quite the same impact on the main plot as in the previous books, instead the plot being largely decided in the Fourlands. The characterisation is again very good, the new major character Cyan is convincing although (since her character is basically a spoiled teenager) inevitably irritating. The chapters devoted to Lightning, Rayne and Frost allow a bit more character development for immortals other than Comet and even the enigmatic Emperor has a bit more of his character revealed, although in his case each answer only brings up more questions. Thought there is less time spent on world-building than in the first two books there is still some extra depth added to the world, although some minor aspects do seem a bit unconvincing - while a certain amount of anachronism is an integral part of the Fourlands, it does seem a bit out-of-place to have Comet complaining about his old haunts being replaced by trendy wine bars.
The quality of the writing is again high, whether it is describing the horrors of war, the petty complaints of a spoiled teenage or the wonder of Comet’s flight over the land, and seems a bit more polished and memorable than the prose in “No Present Like Time”, with a number of good quotes and passages. Lightning and Rayne’s flashbacks also have their own distinct voices, which make a nice change from Comet’s admittedly entertaining narration.
In summary, this is another excellent Fantasy novel which adds more depth to the Fourlands and its characters, while at the same time delivering a compelling plot with some excellent scenes.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
Steph Swainston’s second book was a sequel to The Year Of Our War. Although No Present Like Time isn’t a direct continuation of the first book’s plot it does feature the same setting and characters.
The War with the insects is under control (for the moment, at least) and it should be a time to relax for Comet and the other Immortals responsible for the newfound Peace. However, some drastic changes are about to occur to Comet’s comfortable existence.
The catalysts for the change are two near-simultaneous events. First Gio Serein, the castle’s Swordsman, who has held his position for centuries, is defeated in a challenge and displaced by a young man inexperienced in life, but with a great talent for duelling. Gio is incensed by his humiliating defeat and, faced with the prospect of losing his immortality and dying in a mere few decades, insists he should be returned to his rightful place as the best Swordsman. When the Emperor is unsympathetic, he leaves to try and raise a revolt against the Emperor and his former immortal colleagues in the Circle.
Meanwhile, the world is reacting to the news that a new inhabited island has been found, called Tris. This is shocking to the people of the Fourlands who believed they were alone in the world, and the Emperor quickly despatches a couple of ships to make contact with the people of Tris to try and bring them into the Empire.
Comet, the main character in this novel, as in “The Year Of Our War”, is none too pleased to be tasked with accompanying the ships on their long ocean voyage to Tris. For one thing, he is terrified of the ocean and of drowning, he is fighting a resurgent addiction to the drug which allows him to shift out of reality to the bizarre world of Epsilon and he is also suspicious that his wife is having an affair with the world’s Strongest Man.
It is meant to be a simple voyage of exploration, but when they reach Tris things quickly go wrong. The people of Tris with their unusual method of government (something called ‘Democracy’ which Comet finds inexplicable) aren’t keen on joining the Empire and some of Comet’s fellow immortals turn out to have their own agenda. As a series of diplomatic blunders turn the people of Tris against them, Comet also begins to suspect that there may have been more to the sudden discovery of Tris than was previously suspected.
After the excellence of “The Year Of Our War”, I was really looking forward to Swainston’s next book and this doesn’t disappoint. It isn’t quite as good as its predecessor – the prose isn’t quite as polished, the plot isn’t quite as compelling and the thrill of discovering a highly original new world is largely missing. It is easy to get the impression that Swainston may have spent a bit more time on her debut novel than the sequel, but that doesn’t mean “No Present Like Time” is a poor book, it is still very good.
Comet is still a likeable, if extremely flawed, character and the surrounding characters, both old and new, are both interesting and well-portrayed by the author. The Fourlands (and Epsilon) are still highly-original pieces of world-building and we get to see a bit more depth this time, with less of a focus on the destructive Insect War.
In summary, this is a good book. Not as stunningly brilliant as Swainston’s debut novel but still a highly entertaining read.
Rating : 8 / 10
“The Year Of Our War” is the debut fantasy novel by British author Steph Swainston. It is a highly impressive book, even ignoring the fact that this is her first novel. It is highly original, entertainingly plotted and very well written.
It is set in “The Fourlands”, a setting which is unusual mix of medieval society with some early-20th Century trappings such as semi-industrialised cities and tabloid newspapers. The population is divided into two categories, the immortal Eszai and the mortal Zescai. The Eszai consist of the fifty members of the “Castle Circle” (and their spouses) who are chosen for immortality because they are the best at a particular task – best archer, best warrior, best blacksmith, best sailor and so on. As long as a more-talented mortal doesn’t come along and successfully challenge them the Eszai can live forever, guiding and protecting the mortals. They are all ruled over by the immortal Emperor, San, who controls the circle and claims to be the oldest man alive.
The title of the book might imply that the Fourlands are fighting a year-long war. This is a bit misleading since the empire has been at war for millennia, fighting against an alien race they call “Insects”. The Insects are roughly man-sized, possibly sentient and extremely vicious, attacking everything that moves and covering the land in walls and buildings made of a strange pulpy material the Fourlanders call ‘paper’. Two millennia ago they suddenly appeared on the continent in a small enclosure, they quickly spread over a large part of the continent, turning it into their ‘Paperlands’ before the newly-formed Castle Circle managed to stem the tide. Since then the struggle has been ongoing. The book starts with an attempt by Dunlin Rachiswater, a mortal King of one of the Fourlands, to advance into insect territory and hopefully drive them back. The attempt goes horribly wrong, the King is mortally wounded and the Insects start spreading out into new territory, killing as they go. The Insects are appearing in greater number than ever before, and they threaten to overwhelm the Fourlands. At a time when unity is required, Dunlin’s heir cowers behind his castle walls with his army while the Eszai squabble amongst themselves.
The main character of the book is Comet, the Messenger of the Circle and the only immortal able to fly, due to his unusual ancestry. After a harsh upbringing in the gangs of Hacilith, the Fourlands’ largest city, he gained immortality by challenging the previous Messenger. Now he finds himself charged with discovering where the Insects are coming from, while at the same time mediating between feuding immortals. His other problem is an addiction to the drug ‘Cat’ which allows him to ‘shift’ realities into the world of Epsilon, a world he can’t prove exists. Epsilon is a surreal place, seemingly largely populated by puns (inhabitants include Fibre Tooth Tigers, Laardvarks, Impossums, Whorses and Problemmings – lighter than air rodents that throw themselves off cliffs and float into the air), dominated by the vicious Tines and fighting its own war against Insects.
The conflict between the immortals is caused by a dispute between Mist, the Circle’s Sailor, and his wife Ata, who hates her husband and believes she should take on the title of ‘Sailor’. Their marital dispute threatens to turn into a martial one after Ata raises an army (and navy) to fight against her husband. Lightning, the Circle’s Archer and Comet’s best friend, allies himself with Ata having long resented Mist being the ruler of land that used to be in Lightning’s family. Comet has to try and reign in Lightning and Ata and get them to fight the Insects instead, while simultaneously providing unwilling assistance in Lightning’s wooing of Swallow Awnydyn. Swallow is a mortal governor of a small town and probably the best musician in the history of the Fourlands. However, after the Emperor decrees that only skills useful to the war qualify someone to become an immortal she embarks on an ill-advised military expedition to try and lift the Insect’s siege of Lowespass fortress, with Lightning and Comet providing unwilling support.
As you can probably see, the plot and setting are extremely original – apart from some similarities between the Insects and the Locusts in M.John Harrison’s “A Storm Of Wings” there is nothing else even remotely like this book. It is fascinatingly strange, while still being comprehensible. The land may be very different but the characters are easy to relate to, just trying to go about normal-ish lives in very abnormal circumstances. The main character, Comet, is particularly charismatic despite his serious failings, and his witty commentary on just about everything is one of the novel’s highlights.
The writing is superb, sometimes surreal, sometimes ominous, sometimes highly amusing. Each chapter seems to have at least one brilliantly-constructed, highly quotable sentence or phrase – usually provided by Comet.
Probably the only criticism that can be made of this book is that the plot does seem a bit aimless at times. A lot of the time the book gets distracted from the war against the Insects, and even the looming civil war between the immortals. While Comet’s reminiscing over past events and his escapades in Epsilon are highly entertaining, they sometimes seem to have little relevance to the main plot. Also, the ending is rushed and the book end far too abruptly. Swainston builds up a fascinating plot, and then ties everything up neatly in a handful of chapters which is slightly unsatisfying.
This is an excellent novel, and seems to herald the arrival of a major new talent on the fantasy scene.
Rating : 8½ / 10
The setting of this novel is Istanbul in the middle of the 21st Century and it follows half a dozen disparate characters. A young boy with ambitions to be a detective, an ambitious trader with a plan to get very rich very quickly, an art dealer with a lead on a priceless ancient treasure, the newly-hired marketing director for a start-up technology company, a young man struggling to find his place in the world and a retired economist from the beleaguered Greek community will all find that their lives will be changed by the events that occur over the course of a few days
Having been very impressed with McDonald's previous two books, "River and Gods" and "Brasyl", I was looking forward to this and hoping that his portrayal of a futuristic Istanbul would match up with his portrayals of a futuristic India and Brazil from the preceding books. One of the best features of the book is his evocative description of a mid-21st Century Istanbul, having never been to Turkey I can't tell how genuine his portrayal of a future Turkey is, but he certainly makes it feel authentic and although this is Science Fiction novel written by an author from Belfast I still feel I’ve learned a lot about Istanbul from reading this.
There is some excellent writing, from describing an obsessive young child's use of his toy robot to try to fight crime to the telling of the medieval legend of the Mellified Man. It is fast-paced and although it follows a number of different plots they all manage to be interesting. The characterisation is also very good, with a number of memorable characters in the large cast and some good character development as the novel goes on. I thought it was a very good book, but wouldn't rate it quite as highly as McDonald's previous two books, although the quality of the writing, world-building and characterisation is at a similarly high level the plot isn't quite as compelling and doesn't feel as momentous or ambitious as the plots in the other two books, although on the plus side it does have a more decisive and arguably more satisfying ending than Brasyl did.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
I thought Ian McDonald's River of Gods was a superb SF novel when I read it a few years ago so I was curious to see whether this collection of short stories set in the same mid-21st Century India setting would be as good.
I would say McDonald's writing is just as good at it is in his recent novels and he has a great ability to pack in a lot of excellent world-building and characterisation into a relatively small number of words. His vision of an India caught between tradition and advanced technology (particularly in the field of Artificial Intelligence) continues to be fascinating, and it seems largely convincing to me (although I'm curious whether someone who was Indian would agree with that).
There is a good variety of stories. The Little Goddess follows the journey of a reluctant religious icon trying to deal with the reality of mid-21st Century India while The Djinn's Wife features a starcrossed romance between a woman and an AI. Elsewhere there are stories about the friendship between two boys, one American and one local, about a romance between two heirs to feuding families and the story of a teenage boy obsessed with the young soldiers who get to pilot military robots.
All the stories in the collection are good, I thought "The Little Goddess" and the poignant tragedy of "The Dust Assassin" were the best of them. The last story in the collection, "Vishnu At The Cat Circus", is the most interesting and ambitious of the stories and functions as a sequel to "River of Gods". However, I don't think that final story was entirely successful because it's maybe a bit too short to properly explore the effects of the century of technological change it is covering, and the cat circus framing story didn't seem to add much to the story. It does also feel like the ending of River of Gods was a more satisfying ending that the ending described in this story.
Overall, this is a welcome return to the world described in “River of Gods” and despite the final story being a bit disappointing it is a very good short story collection.
Rating : 8 / 10
Desolation Road was Ian McDonald’s first novel. The title refers to a village that was never meant to exist, a small community on the Bethlehem Ares Railroad in the middle of the Martian desert. It becomes home to a small number of eccentrics and outcasts from across Martian society and this book describes their lives over several decades as the fortunes of the town rise and then fall.
The characters are an interesting mix, including an eccentric scientist, the world’s greater snooker player, a circus pilot, a rebel leader, an ambitious politician and many others. Although there are some interesting and memorable characters, in some ways the characterisation is a bit of a disappointment when compared to McDonald’s later works such as River of Gods or The Dervish House. There often seems to be a lack of character development and arguably many of the characters don’t really change their basic personality throughout the course of the novel. The characters are also not particularly realistic and their behaviour feels like it is more determined by the demands of the plot or the whim of the author rather than them being believable characters in their own right. This does fit with the whimsical style of the novel, but it does often make it hard to really care about what happens to the characters.
The plot is fairly episodic with chapters covering events both small and large, ranging from the visit of a travelling show and the murder of one of its citizens to the town becoming the focus of a major religious pilgrimage and also the site of a major mining operation. Some of the subplots are interesting and entertaining and there is plenty of imagination shown in both the plotting and the world-building, but sometimes the plot developments are trying a bit too hard to be quirky and since it is hard to take the plot entirely seriously the book often isn’t particularly compelling. Other than sharing a common setting and some common characters the different episodes also feel a bit disconnected from each other and although the last section of the book does put the entire existence of Desolation Road in peril the plot still feels a bit incoherent.
The strongest feature of the book is the writing itself, McDonald’s prose is excellent, particularly for a debut novel and there are some evocative descriptions of the Martin landscape and the strange people who inhabit it. However, while in his later work McDonald manages to combine that good prose with good storytelling, this novel doesn’t quite manage that. It is entertaining and with some memorable moments but ultimately a bit unsatisfying and the whole feels like it is less than the sum of its parts.
Rating : 7 / 10
“The Dragon’s Path”, the first book in Daniel Abraham’s epic fantasy series, was a reasonably good book but one I found a bit disappointing since it didn’t quite live up to the high standards set by his previous series, the “Long Price Quartet”. In his previous series each book had been an improvement on the previous one so I was hoping for something similar with this series, and the second book is indeed a significant improvement on the first.
One of the best things about the first book was the characterisation and the main characters do continue to develop here. Geder continues to be the most distinctive character and here he makes further steps along his path from bullied young nobleman to tyrannical despot and Abraham does a good job of switching between scenes where he seems like a sympathetic character to scenes where it is clear that his lack of empathy for the consequences of his actions is turning him into a monster. Dawson is the character who is pretty much Geder’s polar opposite, a generally unlikeable character with bigoted ultra-conservative opinions who is also admirable for his willingness to stand up for what he believes is right. Dawson’s wife Clara was one of the more interesting minor characters in the first book and she gets an expanded role in this book, where she is a good example of how to write a strong and powerful character in a militaristic society who is not a warrior. The storyline involving those three characters is the most interesting in the book, particularly as a power struggle gradually developed between Geder and Dawson, and it is more interesting than any of the plotlines in the first book. Some of the scenes in which Geder confronts the people he believes to be his enemies are particularly tense, and the big confrontation between Dawson and Geder is one of the most memorable scenes in the book.
Cithrin was perhaps the most interesting character in the first book but she has one of the weaker story arcs in this book since her plotline does seem excessively contrived at times, as she gets involved in the main plotline of the book and largely abandons the plotline about her setting up her bank branch that had formed most of her story in the first book. Some of her interactions with Geder feel a bit unbelievable in terms of her characterisation, in particular her surprisingly muted reaction to one revelation about his past deeds. Marcus doesn’t get much to do in the early part of the book and it’s a bit surprising how foolish he is in some of his decision-making. In the second half of the book he sets off on a quest which seems likely to be relevant to the overall story arc of the series, but it does feel a bit disconnected from the rest of this book.
The world-building is reasonably good but it continues to be slightly frustrating that although the dozen different races of humanity form a major part of the background the main characters are almost all from the same race and the races feel like background detail rather than an important part of the world. While the Long Price Quartet had a very distinctive setting, this world does continue to feel like a fairly generic epic fantasy setting, although there is still a lot of potential for it to be developed further in later books in the series.
In summary, this is a good improvement on the first book and if there are further improvements in later books then this might eventually be ranked among the best of the current Epic Fantasy series.
Rating : 8 / 10
There have been many fantasy novels written over the years which are set in a city which is meant to be more than just a place for the plot to happen, but is meant to be an integral part of the story itself. The latest attempt at a great city is the titular Villjamur in “Nights of Villjamur”, the first book in Mark Charan Newton’s “Legends of the Red Sun” series. Villjamur is an ancient city, built on the ruin of a long-lost civilisation and the capital of an Empire stretching across the Boreal Archipelago, a wintry chain of islands where life away from the cities is harsh and about to get much harsher as the islands prepare for the onset of what they believe will be a decades-long Ice Age. As the weather worsens, the rulers of Villjamur stockpile resources and food to sustain them during the long winter whilst outside the walls a growing number of refugees are setting up camp, hoping to be let into the city that fears to admit them, believing that resources are insufficient to feed everyone.
There isn’t a single central plot-thread in the book, instead there are multiple characters all with their own plots and motivations which occasionally overlap with one another and it’s difficult to really say which plot should be considered the main one. One plot thread focuses on Inquisitor Jeryd, a member of the non-human Rumel race who share the city with humans who despite his non-human origins is in every other respect a traditional fictional detective, trying to solve the grisly and seemingly supernatural murder of a city councilman while dealing with his overly-ambitious aide, a conspiracy involving a banned underground religion and his unhappy love-life as he tries to win back his estranged wife. Another plot thread is centred around the seemingly carefree Randar Estevu, a young man from a remote tribe recently arrived in the city to work as the Emperor’s daughter’s dancing tutor who is secretly indulging in some seduction of wealthy widows and a bit of simple theft in an attempt to raise the money needed to pay for a cultist’s magical cure for his mother’s illness. The third major plot thread focuses on Brynd, the commander of the Night Guard, the Emperor’s elite bodyguard who are ambushed by a mysterious enemy during a mission to obtain some vital resources who also has to deal with the ambitious Chancellor Urtica’s war-mongering and investigating the mysterious disappearances of large numbers of people on one of the Empire’s outer islands. The final major plot features the rivalry between two of the city’s most powerful groups of cultists, cultists being the only people who know how to use the seemingly magical technology left behind by ancient civilisations.
One consequence of having so many plot threads is that they can seem a bit disconnected from each other. For example, the Cultist plotline only has fairly loose connections to the rest of the story and by the end of the book has very little directly to do with Villjamur itself. Presumably, the plotlines will be better integrated in later books, since this is the first volume in a four-book series.
Nights of Villjamur is Newton’s second novel, and at times that inexperience can be apparent. It is an ambitious work with a complex story, some impressive world-building and Newton’s writing seems to aspire to be higher quality than that of most fantasy authors. He is only partially successful in that ambition, most of the time the quality of the prose is fairly high but it can also seem a bit clunky on occasion, particularly with some awkward exposition early in the book. The dialogue is often a particular weak point, attempts at dramatic speeches often end up seeming a bit trite (for one example, the underwhelming scene where the Chancellor tries to rally the council to declare war on a rival nation) and attempts at everyday conversation sometimes don’t seem to flow naturally or convincingly. Another area where the book falls slightly short of its lofty aims is in the depiction of Villjamur itself. The world-building is intriguing and mostly described efficiently without excessive exposition after the initial introduction to the world. However, the descriptions of Villjamur itself are never quite as evocative as they should be and although the characters frequently remark on what a unique and awe-inspiring place the city is, the actual portrayal of the city fails to make it truly memorable.
Characterisation overall is reasonably good, with a varied group of characters all of whom have believable motivations and distinct personalities. However, some of them don’t really get enough time to properly develop, even fairly important characters like the cultist leader Papus, the artist Tuya or the Emperor’s heir Rika largely remain enigmas throughout the book and some of the characters who do get a bit more time spent on them can seem a bit bland – Jeryd is a likeable character but the honest-but-troubled detective is more than a little bit clichéd and despite being non-human he never feels in the slightest bit alien. Probably the weakest bit of characterisation is the main villain, who ends up being a bit of an over-the-top caricature of a greedy and ambitious politician.
The book is well-paced, getting quickly to the heart of the story without too much introduction and Newton does pack a lot of plot development into its 440 pages. Several of the plot threads are genuinely intriguing and compelling, the book building to a satisfying climax which provides a reasonable amount of resolution to some plot threads while leaving plenty of material for the sequels to explore. The world-building also hints at much greater depth to be revealed in later books, the world Newton describes is interesting and it has some fairly novel elements such as the stresses placed on the civilisation by the problems of the coming Ice Age, problems without any apparent easy solution.
In summary, this is an example of a book that could have been great but has to settle for merely being good. The world is interesting and the plot intriguing and overall it is an entertaining read, but I feel that it might have been a better book if Newton had a few more years experience writing since the occasionally uneven prose and dialogue are flaws that many debut novels (or second novels, in this case) have. Hopefully the later books in the series will build upon the promising foundations of this novel.
Rating : 6.5 / 10
This is the first book in Daniel Abraham's five volume Epic Fantasy series, "The Dagger and the Coin", the series title referring to one of the main themes about how both military might and financial power can be equally important. The two main plotlines in the book follow the attempts of a naive young officer to make the best of a situation when he is placed in command of the military occupation of a conquered city and the efforts of a young refugee to turn other people's gold into her own bank. Meanwhile, an exiled priest warns of a long-forgotten threat that could ultimately have a bigger impact on the world than any army or financial institution.
I think Abraham's "Long Price Quartet" is one of the best fantasy series of the last decade so I was looking forward to the start of his next series. Compared to the brilliance of the last couple of Long Price books, this did turn out to be a disappointment overall - there were quite a few good bits in it I really liked but I wasn't that keen on much of the plot. The parts of the book concerning the intrigues among the two groups trying to influence the Antean throne were not particularly compelling and it was difficult to really care which side actually won.
Abraham has some wonderful characterisation in his previous series and there were some good characters here as well, but also some I found a bit unconvincing, particularly one character's muted reaction to the consequences of a monstrous decision he takes. I liked the other major plotline a bit more, Cithrin's attempts to establish herself as a banker were more interesting, she was a better developed character and the plot was relatively original as an Epic Fantasy plotline (Feist's "Rise of a Merchant Prince" is the only other book I can think of with a similar plotline). There were also some good supporting characters, I particularly liked the Apostate from the prologue and Clara Kalliam who was a much more interesting character than her husband.
The world-building has potential, but so far isn't developed in any great detail and although it talks a bit about the 13 races of humanity I wouldn't say I really have much of an idea what distinguishes them and the locations we see are fairly standard fantasy cities. At times it does feel like Abraham is consciously trying to write an Epic Fantasy along the lines of Martin's "A Song Of Ice and Fire" and I think his books were more interesting when he was writing a more original work like the "Long Price Quartet".
Overall, this is a reasonably good book and it still has the potential to turn into a good series, but judged on its own I suspect the first book will end up being a bit unmemorable.
Rating : 7 / 10
In a world where the Roman Empire never fell it has grown over the millennia to dominate most of the world but there is a dark shadow at the heart of the Empire in the form of its continued reliance on the use of slaves to build the Empire. Two escaped slaves and an idealistic grandson of the Emperor with some controversial opinions about slaves are all forced together as they are hunted across Europe.
The “This is the Roman Empire, Now” tagline was what initially grabbed my attention about the book; it’s an intriguing premise even if this isn’t the first book to feature an alternate history in which the Roman Empire never fell. I think it failed to entirely live up to its full potential, but it is still an entertaining read.
Given that the book’s unique selling point was meant to be that it was sent in a 21st Century Roman Empire the world-building feels slightly lacking at times. Although there is a fair amount of detail and the alternative history seems fairly plausible the Roman elements aren’t particularly distinctive and a lot of the world-building does seem to mostly consist of renaming things. If the book had instead been a secondary world fantasy it wouldn’t necessarily have been much different.
While the world-building is slightly lacklustre I think it is the characterisation that is perhaps the most appealing part of the book. The main characters are likeable and the interactions between them generally ring true. The book does a good job of exploring their emotions and why they act the way they do – particularly Una and Dama who are the strongest characters. Occasionally they can make some frustratingly stupid decisions, but that it is believable given how far away they are from the world they are used to.
One of the strong points of the world-building is that the plot of the novel focuses heavily on one of the biggest differences between the Roman Empire and the modern day. The institution of slavery is central to the plot and with many of the characters being escaped slaves it does a good job of examining how even those who escape slavery are still haunted by their former status.
The plot itself is entertaining and fast-paced, it starts off with some intriguing mysteries and there is a fair amount of action throughout the book as the characters embark on journeys taking them halfway across Europe and their fugitive status does allow for a few tense scenes as they come close to being captured. There could perhaps have been a bit more time spent on the political machinations in Rome which initially seem like a significant part of the book but get largely sidelined by the lengthy descriptions of Marcus, Una and Sulien’s attempt to get to safety. Sometimes the book does seem to rest fairly heavily on coincidence, and the inclusion of some fantasy elements in the form of Una’s powers does maybe feel a bit out of place in what is otherwise a ‘realistic’ alternate history novel.
Overall, this is a good debut novel although one that doesn’t entirely fulfil its full potential and it does leave me wanting to read the sequels.
Rating : 7.5 / 10