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 and editing skills.
This is a novella, so I’m going to keep this review fairly short.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Adults and YA both
- High Fantasy
- Grimdark-ish. There is an instance of a child being killed, and a small amount of body horror (demons). Besides that, traditional fantasy tone.
- Elemental magic. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Heart (aka Aether). By your powers combined, we can access the demonworld.
- Medieval Fantasy, but with a ‘French Revolution’ style worldbuilding. The bad guys killed the monarchy, and now rule the empire with an iron fist, oppressing the demon-empowered mages who once supported the monarchy.
- LGBTQ. The protagonist is possibly queer, possibly not. It’s never gotten into. HOWEVER, she comes from a society where women take two husbands.
IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I liked this a lot. The author is clearly skilled. If I were to point out the book’s biggest flaw, I’d say that the author packed in too much plot into too few pages (only 165pages). It felt to me like the story blasted from plotpoint to plotpoint really fast. On the good side, this meant fast pacing! On the bad side, the book never had the chance to mellow out and settle… at least until the very end. The end slowed down in a good way.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (4/5 Stars)
Note: MY STAR GRADES ARE NOT A MEASUREMENT OF QUALITY. They are a measurement of how well this book fits *me* as a specific reader with unique biases, and how well I synched up with this story.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I like a good novella. If an author can pack in a good story, plot, pacing, worldbuilding into the small package of a novella, I’ll always be happy. And while I’m not the biggest fan of traditional western elemental magic (earth, air, fire, water…), I felt that it worked well here.
- The Shadow Campaigns (Django Wexler): Similar Magic system, similar worldbuilding vibe
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: specifically, the Legend of Korra era when non-magic users can gain political dominance
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
The Dragon Monarchy was overthrown by Liberationists. The Dragon Monarch was basically the Avatar from Avatar: The Last Airbender, capable of wielding all five types of magic. The Liberationists are a pseudo-democratic government who replaced them- but where the mages ruled the world under the Dragon Monarch, now the mages are enslaved and ruled by the normals. The moral justification for this Liberation is the fact that mages gain magic from demons, and the Dragon Monarch was infested by five demons, making them the ‘worst’ of all.
But not all is as it seems. Fellian is a fire mage, skilled in the creation of light. Her family was killed by the Liberationists, and then she was taken to an asylum where she was indoctrinated into the sharply proscribed ways of the Liberation magic. The last of the Monarchists come to Fellian, begging her for help. They need her unique magic to illuminate the eldritch dark of a distant cave system, and save refugees hidden there.
Fellian doesn’t want to get involved- after all, the Liberationists have long since crushed all resistance. Fighting the good fight will just get her killed, just like her parents. But the Monarchists won’t take no for an answer.
I thought this plot was well executed. It’s a Chosen One story… told from the perspective of someone on the outskirts of the Chosen One. There’s a new Dragon Monarch (aka the Chosen One), and the Chosen One ain’t Fellian. This was a neat trick, and was well done.
CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:
I liked Fellian. She only got 165 pages, so she doesn’t have much character development, but what we did get was solid. Spoilers below:
I liked how in the end, after all the successes, she didn’t change her mind and decide to join the Monarchists. She started the book wanting to cut and run, and after she helped the Monarchists, she cut and run. She didn’t have a sudden turn and decide to be a rebel against the system; she wanted to go back to her family. Ordinarily you’d think that after having an adventure the hero will have changed as a person. Not in this case. It worked well.
The other characters were less well characterized, but I forgive this fault. As stated, this is a short book, and only Fellian got a lot of screen time.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
Great pacing, as stated above. The book was tightly paced from storybeat to storybeat. There is little fluff in any of the scenes which could have been cut without damaging the narrative as a whole.
Here is the book’s Act structure:
- In the Bathhouse
- In this act, we’re introduced to the status quo of the setting. Fellian is an enslaved mage working as a maid in a bathhouse/hotel for rich people. We meet a ‘rough’ untrained mage, who is likewise held in low regard by society. We learn the origin story of the fallen Dragon Monarchs.
- Fellian makes a deal with the Monarchists… which the monarchists then betray and kidnap her anyway.
- On the run
- Fellian and the Monarchists are on the run from the police, using magic to escape. Until they get news that a baby Monarch as been born…
- Saving the baby
- Even using teleportation magic, they arrive at the scene of the baby’s birth… too late. The Liberationists have arrived and are about to execute the baby for the crime of being born.
- Using magic, they save the baby. Their only escape route is through demonland.
- Through demonland
- Demonland is an inhospitable alternate dimension/realm filled with demons. They are chased through it by Liberationists. They escape to the Monarchist’s stronghold.
- Demons follow them through the portal into the stronghold. They fight them off.
- Saving the refugees
- Fellian uses her light magic to save the lives of refugees seeking shelter amongst the Monarchists.
- One of her new friends dies as a consequence of all the fighting.
- Going home
- Fellian is offered to stay with the Monarchists and be one of the baby Dragon Monarch’s bodyguards. She turns down the offer.
- Fellian returns to her homeland… but with the twist that she’s thinking about starting a rebellion against the Liberation and teaming up with the Monarchists.
- Cliffhanger twist for book 2?
You don’t see a six act structure too often, but there’s nothing wrong with it. This worked well.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
The story’s plot (as seen above) worked well. I found it compelling.
The book’s stakes were well done, but if I were the book’s editor, I would say they could have been a little bit better. Namely, I would have liked if in act 1 the author showed (not told) what an example of a mage rebelling against the Liberation was. Executing a mage, for example.
I also would have liked a slower paced scene added between the ‘On the Run’ act and the ‘Saving the baby’ act. It would have helped with the pacing.
I felt the tension was pretty good throughout.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
Here’s a minor problem. In two paragraphs the prose felt muddled, and I wasn’t quite sure what the author was trying to say. I had to read these sections two or three times to even guess what was going on. Again, these were only two paragraphs in an entire book, so it’s not a big deal.
The book’s tone was verging on grimdark. I think the book’s tone would have been well served if the author played around with the grimness of the setting some more- at least for mages living in the setting. Going back to my suggestion above, if in act 1 we witnessed a mage being executed for rebelling against the Liberation, it would have really solidified the tone for me.
The book had a theme of rebellion. First the Liberation rebelled against the Dragon Monarchy, and now the Dragon Monarchy is rebelling against the Liberation. More on this in the next section.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
I liked how neither side were presented as being entirely heroes. The author left enough wiggle room in the narrative to make you question whether it would be an entirely good thing to have the Monarchy restored. It was left unasked, and unanswered, why the Liberation rebelled in the first place. Were they justified? It was hinted that society back in the day was a heavily caste-based system, with aristocrats, mages and guilds on top, and everyone else underneath them. When the Liberation rebelled things mostly stayed the same, except now that mages are on the bottom and the ‘virtuous’ are above them.
I would have liked if the author took a page or two and fleshed this aspect of the worldbuilding out a bit more, perhaps ‘from the horse’s mouth’ by having the August Protector of the Liberation monolog for a while on why the Monarchy is evil and the heroes are evil for seeking it’s return. With the August Protector being an unreliable narrator, it would have really made me (as a reader) think about whether or not she’s justified to have rebelled.
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- Worldbuilding through ambiguity. I was left in the dark whether or not the restoration of the Monarchy would actually be a good thing or not. Was the Liberation justified? Clearly the Liberation went too far with the whole ‘indentured servitude of mages’ and ‘killing babies’ thing, but from what little we got it felt that the Monarchy also sucked. I enjoyed this ambiguity in this book, and would have enjoyed it even more if the author leaned into it a bit more.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
This book was fun, and made me think a bit. I read it fast, and enjoyed it. It’s in the running for the top 5 or 10 books I’ll read this year. If you’re looking for an easy read, check this out.
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