This is a good book, but it’s a divisive book. It plays Grimdark genre conventions straight, but is unafraid of breathing a fresh air of Dark Souls/Berserk-style worldbuilding into a genre which is otherwise low fantasy. I enjoyed it, but at times I have to admit I felt this book tripped over it’s own feet by insisting upon itself a bit too much.
A few notes. This book had a slow start. The book’s plot started at about the 10% mark, or about 90 pages in this 900 page book. I thought this was tolerably slow, but your opinion might vary on if you’re willing to wait. Also, I felt like 150 pages could have been trimmed out of this book. It was long.
I set as a goal of reading 50 self pub books this year. This is #7.
Spoilers Below. I’m writing this review in good faith, as one author reviewing another’s book, trying to balance positives with negatives.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Slow Start. The plot begins at about 10%, or 90 pages into the book.
- Grimdark with a focus on GRIM. There’s no plot armor to be seen.
- HOWEVER, unlike most Grimdark books, the characters aren’t bad people or morally grey people. The protagonists in this are all morally good, but forced into tough circumstances.
- Indie self published
- Giant/orc protagonist
- 18+. This contains everything from gore, self-mutilation, sex, sex assault, masturbation, people rotting from the inside out, and the dog dying. And probably more.
- Berserk/Demons Souls style worldbuilding
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I enjoyed reading this, but this book was a bit rough around the edges. More details to come on why. However, to summarize my grading, I’d say that this was a fun read if you’re not scared off by the prospect of gore/sex/assault/nightmare fuel.
WARNING! DO NOT READ PAST THIS UNTIL YOU HAVE FINISHED READING THE BOOK!
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I like the Dark Souls style games. I don’t like Grimdark generally. I’ve not read very many Grimdark books, but THAT SAID I think this is one of my favorite Grimdarks I’ve read thusfar.
SIMILAR BOOKS/OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES
- I’d list traditional Elves/Dwarves/Orcs fantasy, because one of the protags is an Arak (aka an orc.
- I’ve not read the Prince of Thorns books myself, but from what I understand this might have a similar vibe.
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
What is a LitRPG? The LitRPG genre is a fantasy genre inspired by RPG games. This book was sold as being Dark Souls-like fiction… so technically this book was marketed as being a LitRPG. I went into this expecting a story about an undying protagonist who throws himself/herself at enemies again and again, trying to kill dangerous monsters. You know, the game-cycle of the Dark Souls games. That’s not what this is.
Instead of being Dark Souls inspired in the same way that a LitRPG are inspired by RPG games, this is Dark Souls inspired purely on a worldbuilding level. Storytelling wise, this is more of a traditional fantasy of morally white/morally grey heroes teaming up against an oncoming invading army. Honestly? I was a bit disappointed. Now that I think about it, I want to read a story about an undying protagonist who throws himself at enemies repeatedly. For what this is, it’s not bad, I expected something else.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
I’m going to get into the weeds here with complaints for a little while. However, before we do, I need to get something across: I enjoyed these characters. All together, I’d give them 3.5 stars for characterization. I’m about to talk about the sexual assault, and that’s the only reason it’s not 4 stars.
There are five POV characters: Nora, Delila, Erefiel, Chroma and Ievarus.
I enjoyed the character Nora the most, because she had the most detailed character arc. She is a powerful woman, confident in herself, and as a solder she’s devoted to a life of violence. At multiple points, she verbally condemns men and women who are blind or limping for being weak or untrustworthy. Midway through the book, she suffered a dual amputation of an arm and a leg, which dramatically upset the trajectory of her character arc. After the amputation, she’s forced to confront her own intolerance of damaged people when she too becomes damaged. That’s good old fashioned Greek Ironic Tragedy.
While recovering, she’s sent home to her family whom she hates. If I were to describe her family, I’d say they’re a combination of the Dursleys and extremely judgmental Christians. They are small minded, gossipy, dislike Nora and keep her locked up like a madwoman in the attic for fear of embarrasing their reputation in public. Nora became a soldier to escape their repression; having to return to that household was devastating. This was a great character arc!
But then the sex assault happened.
Skipping that for now, Nora then is saved by Ievarus, Delila and Erefiel, and receives magical prosthesis so she can re-enter the fight. She then proceeds to go on a roaring rampage of revenge against everyone who wronged her. This rampage was a bit cliche, but I thought it was fun. Once her rampage is complete, she re-joins the heroes and helps fight the final battle.
I enjoyed her character arc, but on a structural level I don’t think it was perfect. She starts confident and cruel, receives the setback of her amputation and is forced to re-gain her confidence and independence at any possible cost if only to escape her Dursley-like parents. That’s a good character arc. Sadly, the assault tainted things for me.
- If I were to restructure this, I’d have it so that after she escapes the Dursleys by her own grit, she should have been rewarded for her efforts by receiving her prosthetics. There’s no need for the assault.
- Instead, as the book is written, Nora’s punished after gaining a modicum of independence, by being assaulted and having her final two limbs cut off. Only then does she receive her prosthetics as a pity present from Ievarus. Structurally this didn’t work for me.
Sexual assault as character development is always a bit icky, however let’s not jump to conclusions about this and instead look at this clinically. This assault is a method by the story’s narrative to deprive Nora of her agency so that the joy of her getting her prosthetics are a higher-high, compared to her lower-low of being assaulted. However, Nora’s already compellingly had her agency stripped from her by her Dursley-like parents in the prior chapters. In my opinion, her recovery at home with her parents was the best part of the book, due to how small-minded and despicable her family are. The sexual assault was a narrative black hole; after it was added, there was no purpose for Nora being bullied by her family. All those chapters could have been deleted to save time.
Think of this like math. What is the ratio of difference between the pleasure of receiving prosthetics and the pain of assault (x:y) compared to the ratio of difference between the pleasure of receiving prosthetics and the pain of months of anguish-filled recovery with her insufferable parents (x:Y)? I would argue that (Y>y), because the story spent many pages building up her family as being a bunch of insufferable gits, whereas the assault took place on only one page. I personally feel it’s a shame the assault took place, because it took the wind out of the narrative importance of all the careful building up her family received- and that’s not even going into the sexual assault icky factor.
For the sake of time, I’ll summarize my thoughts on the other characters.
Delila was cool, but acted indecisively. I think that indecisive feeling was intentional? She was a teenagers, and teenagers don’t know what they want half the time. I wanted a bit more rebellion from her, and I wanted to know why she was so certain about the guilt of the coven of witches.
Erefiel was the most easy to root for of all five protagonists. I liked him, and I think me liking him was the point, the author wrote him to be easy to root for. In retrospect, it’s obvious his days were numbered because this is Grimdark and the Lawful Good characters always get axed early in the series.
Chroma was a neat idea. Again, he acted indecisively, between siding with the heroes and villains, constantly misbehaving and never seemingly punished for his lawbreaking. I feel like he ended the story fighting for the wrong side. I’m curious where the series narrative is going with him.
Ievarus us a cypher, an eldritch being descended from on-high to learn what it means to be human. A+ interesting character.
And finally, the best part. All these characters are good people. Too many Grimdark books I’ve read star evil or morally grey characters. This book does something different. Four of these five protagonists are genuinely good people; the fifth is an eldritch being who doesn’t ascribe to moral behavior. What makes this book Grimdark is the fact that all of them are put in circumstances where they’re forced to compromise their morality.
THIS is how you do Grimdark right. There’s no tension in a bad person doing bad things; there is LOTS of tension in a good person doing bad things. Speaking of which…
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Erefiel’s plot is also the main plot. An oncoming attack by an army of arak will wipe out the kingdom of heroes. The characters have to team up to fight them off. I thought it was well implemented.
Delila’s witch plot had the seeds of greatness. The final twist at the end was a surprise. Chroma’s plot was likewise potentially interesting.
This is a horny book, with sex scenes, masturbation scenes, and sex assault all depicted on-page. That’s not my vibe, so whenever that popped up I just skipped those chapters. While I’m on the subject, one character is caught masturbating by an unknown character. For a long time, the narrative worries who the peeping tom is. However, that plotline never pays off.
As stated, I enjoyed Nora’s plot the most, except for that assault storybeat. Ignoring that storybeat (if you can ignore it), her character arc was one of the strongest I’ve read in the last year or so.
I felt this book’s stakes, but I think it could have been marginally improved. We were told about the danger of the oncoming Arak army but never shown it. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a writing aphorism, meaning that an author should try to depict in text a thing, and not just infodump about a thing. In this case, I think the heroes could have gone to an human settlement which has been overwhelmed by the arak earlier in the story, to see hte consequence of them losing the final battle.
And finally, the tension was excellent, maybe my favorite part of the book.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
I like to use a stained glass/windowpane glass metaphor to describe novel prose. ‘Stained glass’ is used to describe prose which is colorful and stylish, for the purpose of drawing attention of itself. Whereas ‘windowpane’ is approachable and basic, for the purpose of not getting in the way of the reader’s suspension of disbelief. I feel like this book is slightly on the ‘stained glass’ end of the spectrum.
This novel’s tone is GRIMDARK. As an example, there is blood magic in this book where the entrails of corpses are presented. Then there’s there’s multiple sex-scenes. War is presented on-screen, including refugees, comfort women and more.
Theme wise, this book was focused on difficult family relations. Erefiel is estraged from his mother, and to a lesser extent his father. Delila was forced to abandon her family, and is so traumatized by their separation that she’s afraid of returning. Nora’s family are as toxic as the Dursleys. Chroma’s relationship with his father is… complicated. And finally Ievarus is the son of the the Elder King. Put all together, parents suck.
Finally, every chapter in this book begins with a quotation from an in-world bit of literature. Some were useful worldbuilding, others weren’t.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
The setting reminded me of the depth of Dark Souls/Demons Souls/Bloodborne. There are flying manta rays, brain-replacing monsters (which don’t appear in this book but reminded me of the brain suckers from bloodborne), a spreading rot, and an endless fog filled with magical potential. The Dark-Souls weirdness was so cool, I wanted more of it.
I thought the dour setting was well implemented. For example, when the protagonists ventured to the Mount Olympus equivalent, and it was a weird residence for eldritch horrors where time and space make no sense.
I thought the arak were orcs. They were never called orcs, but instead ‘giants.’ However they had tusks, tattoos, and piercings, and they fought using clubs and axes, and they are an uncivilized warrior species. Hence, orcs. I like reading about orcs. They were tropey here. I wish they were a bit less tropey, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.
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:
- When writing Grimdark, remember that you can have morally good characters.
- These characters were healers, defenders of the innocent, and yet nontheless were forced by grimdark circumstances to compromise their morality.
- This is great writing. This book was heartbreaking when the protagonists lashed out when put under stress. And those heartbreaking moments were great to read.
- There’s little tension in a morally bad character being forced to make morally bad decisions, but a skilled author can milk a LOT of tension out of a morally good character being forced to make morally bad decisions.
- This book contained sexual assault. I didn’t think it was necessary.
- Sexual assault is a tricky trope which frequently comes up in the Grimdark subgenre; some books use it well, others don’t. As a trope, it’s like a black hole in a character arc; when you include it, the entire character arc is either pulled in, or begins to orbit around it.
- I personally feel that this book would have been better off without the trope.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
This is a good book. It’s a bit rough in places, but it’s the best grimdark I’ve read in a few years. I’ll probably read book 2.
Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more: The Rest of My In Depth Reviews
On a personal note, I’m open to editing books and beta-ing. I don’t like putting myself out here like this, but I’ve been told I should. Check my blog for details if interested.