This book is dope. You should read it. If you want to read more, here is the rest of my review.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I am what is called in the business ‘a giant nerd.’ This last year I listened to multiple 24 hour lecture series on the Ottoman Empire, Sufism, the Byzantine Empire, as well as reading a bunch of Rumi’s short stories. This book contained all of that… plus also some Lovecraftian goodness. And did I mention that I like Lovecraftian goodness?
In short, I am this book’s target audience. This will be a glowing review in part because this is the exact sort of book I want to read. If this book’s genres/themes don’t strike your fancy like they did for me, then chances are you won’t enjoy it as much as I did.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?
- Turkish/Arab/Sufi/Horde Mongolian/Byzantine Fantasy
- Lovecraftian Horror spin on Angels.
- You know how classical angels are depicted as being burning chariots and wheels with eyeballs? You know, really weird? Imagine if Cthulhu was an angel.
- Adult Fantasy. Children are killed.
- Grimdark, but not very nihilistic.
- By nihilistic I mean that most of the characters have an core of humanity you can empathize with. The ‘bad guy’ Micah clearly has both an angel and a devil on his shoulders, and he prefers to listen to the angel. Even by the end of the book, after he’s gone through his corruption arc, he still has the ability to feel regret and love and guilt.
- Except for the eldritch horrors/their cultists. Can’t really empathize with them
- Political Fantasy and Military Fantasy. Two warring civilizations are fighting over the city of Kostany (*cough*Constantinople*cough*). Further, each of those civilizations contains multiple factions who are rivals to power against one another.
- Also there is a hint that two rival factions of Eldritch horrors are fighting, using the Latians(Ottomans) and the Ethosians(Byzantines) as proxies in their Lovecraftian Cold War against one another.
READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I am in this book’s target audience, so I am inclined to like this. Like I said, I’m a giant nerd about the Byzantine/Ottoman era. Similarly I just finished playing ‘Bloodborne’ (a Lovecraftian game) a few weeks back. I had WAAY too much fun reading this.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (5/5 Stars)
(5 Stars= Perfect, 4=Great, 3=Good/Average, 2=Fun but Flawed, 1=Not Recommended)
- A Critique/Review of ‘The Song of the Shattered Sands’ series by Bradley P. Beaulieu
- Ottoman/Arab vibes, with jinn and powerful gods
- ‘The Ruin of Angels’ by Max Gladstone/‘Two Serpents Rise’ by Max Gladstone (AKA the Craft Sequence)
- Lovecraftian vibes, but in a very different context
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book’s concept is: Byzantium is going to war against the Ottomans, trying to reclaim Constantinople. At the same time, eldritch angels and jinn move under the surface of reality, manipulating the emotions and giving profane visions to powerful people on both sides of the war, trying to subtly encourage their chosen side to win the war. And behind it all, we have a tale of broken families and the unceasing cycle of violence.
The book’s execution is very well done. The author used foreshadowing very well, but also subverted my expectations pleasantly more than once. If I were to fault the book, I’d say the prose was rarely/never purple or flowery. Given the tradition of Lovecraftian verbosity, I think the author could have been more descriptive at times. Still, the setting felt well realized from both a historical as well as worldbuilding perspective, neatly blending cosmic horror with Ottoman civil war politics, and splendid characters.
A+ work. My complements to the author.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
We’re entering the MAJOR spoiler zone here. Back out now if you want to go into this unspoiled. If you want to read this unspoiled- and you do want to read this unspoiled- go read it now.
After reading the book, I think Micah is supposed to be the primary antagonist. Here’s the thing: to me at least, he never fell completely fell to the dark and became despicable. I loved him as an antagonist due to his complex nature. He he did evil deeds, but he never seemed to fall completely to the dark. Like I said above, he had an angel and a demon on his shoulders, and he constantly felt guilt for his less upstanding actions. I found that guilt made him a compelling antagonist, that I’m not entirely confident that they would have gone through with their evil plan at the last minute. Micah is a damaged man, who never recovered from having his daughter stolen from him by slavers. He did A LOT of evil things, but he never lost that sense of his inner sense of trying to help his people and serve his faith. I never got the feeling that he truly hated his enemies, not like how Berrin hated them. Micah just got railroaded into making a ton of bad mistakes by the gods and his own personal flaws, and suffered a lot as a result.
Speaking of stolen daughters, let’s talk about Kevah, Melodi and Micah. Oooh boy, that was a twist. I saw it coming, but it still worked. Goes to show that one-in-a-million, deus-ex-machina plot twists can be good storytelling.
Kevah is another man damaged by lost love and lost daughters, but is healed over the course of his book by his love and faith in his khagana Sadie. You’d think that a khagana (female form of the word ‘khan,’) would be a bloodthirsty warlord, but no. Sadie’s kindness and empathy was what prevailed in the end, not Lunara/Aschere’s emotionlessness. That’s a good parallel, showing how Kevah healed over the course of the book, as he transferred his emotions from someone abusive to someone emotionally stable and healthy.
And Sadie’s relationship with her brother and her father restated this theme of broken families. For those not in the know, the Ottoman Empire only had a handful of civil wars over it’s 600 year history, thanks to a storied tradition of sibling murder. In the real world, Ottoman-style siblings like Sadie and Alir would have killed one another to hold the Empire together, usually by sending janissaries to strangle the losing princeling with a silk rope. The fact that Sadie was dead set against killing her brother says a lot about her character, given the context.
The Kevah/Sadie lovestory felt like insta-love to me. I don’t generally like insta-love. That said, I did like that Sadie was a royal, and used her marriage to establish a marriage alliance, instead of marrying Kevah. She has to protect the people of her khaganit, and the only way to do that is to ally with the Shah of the Seas to access his army and navy, something her love Kevah can’t give her. The insta-love between Kevah and Sadie worked, because they didn’t wind up together. That’s good characterization.
I didn’t like all the characters. The Grand Mufti and Vizier Ebra didn’t seem to have much of a point. Ebra’s main purpose in the plot was to push Kevah’s buttons, making him realize he really does have a crush on Sadie, but besides that he seems tangential to the plot. The Grand Mufti of the Fount seemed even more pointless. Why was he given so much page time/importance early on when he dropped dead and became irrelevant so early in the story? I don’t understand what the author was trying to do with them.
Finally, a word about Aschere/Lunara. I have A LOT of questions about what happened to her. And you know what? I’m am 100% happy that I got basically no answers. She went from being Kevah’s devoted wife 10 years ago, to being a crazed eldritch horror cultist with no explanation as to how or why she changed. In the cosmic horror subgenre, the horror is often in the lack of answers. Her fall from grace worked well in this regard.
In total, the characters were great. Pretty much all of theme were unlikeable at moments, but nonetheless they were compelling.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
This book has two main protagonists, Micah and Kevah. I will be breaking down the structure along their individual character arcs.
Micah- Micah’s plot arc follows the 5 act format.
- Act 1
- He is baptized. He begins the story with a clean slate.
- Kills the bishop and pressgangs shipbuilders. This begins his fall from grace. The bishop was corrupt, but Micah regretted having to do it.
- Act 2
- Takes Labrynthios with Aschere’s help, conquers Kostany. Loses hand to Melodi and Kevah.
- Makes a pact with the Patriarch of Hyperion to replace the Imperator via marrying the Imperator’s daughter and then killing Imperator Josias.
- Goes forward with the marriage, then enters a fever-coma from losing his hand.
- Act 3
- Wakes back up, only to find out the Patriarch betrayed him and the Imperator is coming to kill him. He re-grows his hand thanks to eldritch evil magic. He uses eldritch evil magic to kill his best friend, who sided with the Patriarch and the Imperator. Kostany is now under seige, by both Ethosians and Latians, and Micah’s men are losing.
- Micah demands a sign from Aschere to prove she serves a god. She resurrects Imperator Josias’s father, Heracles. Heracles arrests Micah, unites the Ethosans, and the Ethosians gain the upper hand in the siege and attack the Latians.
- Act 4
- Kevah and Micah are imprisoned together. When they eventually escape, Micah retreats to Labrynthios.
- Act 5
- Micah and Kevah duel in Labrinthios.
- Micah ends the story deeply corrupt, having lost his faith in all gods, making a dramatic change in characterization from his moment of baptism at the start of the book.
- Micah escapes to his hometown, with the help of a Fallen Angel. Micah is shot in the stomach, in an ironic twist of fate by the very mercenary company he chose to spare earlier. Does he die? See book 2 for details (which I haven’t read yet).
Kevah- I think this follows a 7 act format.
- Act 1
- Returns to Kostany from exile. Meets with the Shah, his father and daughter.
- Lots of heavy-handed foreshadowing about Kevah’s missing wife Lunara. (Truth told, I was expecting that the Shah stole Lunara and added her to his harem in secret.)
- This act serves as the hook to Kevah’s narrative. He is a broken man, but is happy to return to his daughter.
- Act 2
- Micah attacks. Kevah’s daughter Melodi is killed. Kevah is washed out to sea.
- Kevah barely survives, and is rescued by Sadie. She takes him in, heals him up. They fall in love.
- This act serves as the inciting incident to Kevah’s story, aka ‘Plot Turn 1‘. His daughter is killed
- Act 3
- Kevah and Sadie go meet up with her brother Alir. Kevah and the Vizier spar when the Vizier holds Sadie captive, intending to either kidnap or kill her to secure Alir’s rule.
- Kevah and Sadie’s horsemen rescue her, with the help of magus Vaya.
- Kevah and the magus go to investigate the source of fires. They are attacked by an antagonistic magus, and Vaya dies. His death gives Kevah a chance to kill the antagonist magus.
- Having killed a magus, Kevah becomes a magus, gaining immortality and the ability to speak with jinn.
- Sadie and Kevah go speak with Alir and the Vizier again, this time on equal terms. Sadie arranges her marriage with the Shah of the Seas, despite the fact that she loves Kevah. Duty comes first.
- This act serves as the ‘Protagonist Acts 1‘ phase of the story. He defeats a magus and becomes a magus, setting up all the events which follow.
- Act 4
- Kevah goes to some Ethosian villages, almost attacks them. Instead he intercepts the Imperator Josias’s daughter and makes a deal with Imperator Josias for them to attack Kostany together
- They attack Kostany… only for Imperator Heraclius to unite the Ethosians, leading to the downfall of Kevah’s alliance with Josias.
- This act is the midpoint confrontation. Kevah first is on good terms with the Ethosians, only for it to all go horribly wrong.
- Act 5
- Kevah is thrown in prison with Micah
- It is revealed the cultist Aschere is Lunara.
- Micah and Kevah escape. Micah enters Labrynthios, but Kevah doesn’t follow because he loves Sadie and doesn’t want to die while she still lives.
- Kevah joins Sadie, only to find her on her deathbed after battle.
- After she dies, Kevah pursues Micah into Labrynthios to avenge Melodi’s death.
- This act serves as ‘Protagonist Acts 2‘ phase. We see that Sadie is more important to Kevah than revenge. Only after her death is he willing to throw his life away in Labrynthios.
- Act 6
- Kevah and Micah fight in Labrynthios, Kevah wins.
- Kevah and Lunara enter the sanctum of an evil eldritch horror deep within Labrynthios. Lunara/Aschere encourages Kevah to free the monster and destroy Kostany, and in return the monster will revive Sadie.
- Kevah almost does takes her bargain, but in the end doesn’t. He knows Sadie wouldn’t want him to. Instead, Kevah kills his old love Aschere, to save Kostany.
- This is ‘Plot Turn 2,’ showing Kevah’s growth as a person. At the beginning of the book he was so encumbered by his grief that he spent ten years grieving. To get back with Lunara and resolve his grief, he probably would have destroyed Kostany were the choice given to him at the start of the book. But due to his emotional growth over the course of this novel, he is able to say goodbye to Sadie and Lunara, and save Kostany. That’s character growth.
- Act 7/Epilogue
- The eldritch angel/goddess Lat rescues Kevah from Labrynthios, thanks him for stopping the release of the monster.
- Lat agrees to revive Sadie- but on the condition that Kevah and Sadie can never be together. Kevah agrees.
- Sadie and Kevah say goodbye, then go their separate ways.
- This act is the ‘Denouement‘ of the story. The story winds down, and they get a happy ending, even if it isn’t the happy ending either wanted.
Overall I felt this book was well structured, but I had one quibble: Micah was missing a pivotal scene. His initial venture into Labrynthios doesn’t actually occur in the pages of the text. He enters the maze at the end of one of his chapters, and in the next chapter Kevah fights against Micah in the streets of Kostany. I feel like we needed the scene of Micah and Aschere travelling through Labrynthios, on their way to invade Kostany. Labrynthios haunted him after that initial trip through the dark, so it felt weird that that actual trip never actually occurred on page.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
If I must fault something about the book, then I’ll fault the stakes. If you’re not aware of the context of Ottoman/Byzantine politics like I am, chances are you wouldn’t enjoy this book’s plot as much as I did. I think the author could have done a better job of explaining the context of how the Seluqal Shah-dom usually devolves into civil war and violence between siblings- similar to how in rival Ottoman princes competing for the throne would kill one another to re-unify the Empire.
I felt it was never made clear enough that Sadie and her brother were destined to kill one another in this context. Or that the Shah Mother’s repeated attempts on Sadie’s life were not out of jealousy but in an attempt to secure her son’s throne. Or that Murad and Seliq’s war ten years before the onset of the story was also part of this tradition of rival siblings killing one another. Because this aspect of the stakes was not made sufficiently clear, Sadie’s extreme reluctance to hurt her brother seems less extraordinary than it actually is.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
The author’s prose was good. It was very clear, describing events without ostentatious detail. Honestly, I would have liked if the author used a little more lush and descriptive prose. Lovecraft was a notoriously verbose and descriptive author. While Lovecraft’s prose wasn’t the best, I do think that the Cosmic Horror subgenre does benefit from more embellishment. In short, I wanted more descriptions of the eldritch monsters, the architecture, the people and the like.
The book’s tone was dark. Massacres happen, people die horribly. I felt it worked well for what the book was trying to accomplish.
The book had a very well implemented theme of family conflict, slavery, and daughters. Micah lost his daughter Elly to slavery, and she then died. Kevah adopted his slave daughter Melodi, who then died. Shah Murad could only watch as his family was executed. Sadie does not want to go to war her brother Aliq. Kevah lost his family when he was sold into slavery by his family, but he found his family again with Lunara and Melodi… and found another family with Sadie later. Lunara/Aschere’s descent into madness was marked when she left her husband Kevah and daughter Melodi behind, and abandoned her infant son to be killed in the desert. Kevah’s jinn assistant’s only goal in life is to find his human father. You get the idea.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I enjoyed the book’s worldbuilding. It was a good Ottoman/Byzantine inspired story of war and politics, but with the Cosmic Horror twist of both sides being pawns for different factions of eldritch abominations. I also liked the twist of ‘is it magic, or is it alien technology?’
Most importantly, it felt like the author DID NOT bite off more than they could chew. Too often with genre-bending books, I feel like author has a great idea but then struggles to really implement it. In this case, the twist of ‘jinn and angels are actually eldritch horrors from space’ served both the Ottoman inspired plot and the Cosmic Horror plot well.
The jinn still felt like jinn, despite the Lovecraftian spin. The angels/demons felt like incomprehensibly vast and unknowable creatures, as you’d expect them to be in the context of them being multi-dimensional beings in Abrahamic myth as well as in the context of them being Lovecraftian monsters. The author blended the genres well.
I had a great time reading this. I’m happy that this is the first book I’m reviewing this year, because this is a high point to start off on. Let’s hope that the rest of the books I read this year are of similar quality.
Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Cosmic Horror, Lovecraft, Ottoman Fantasy, Arab Fantasy, Byzantine Fantasy, Roman Fantasy, Grimdark
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