This will be a weird review for a weird book. I say that because while I was reading it, I only seemed able to voice complaints (I had quite a few), but ultimately, it more than held my attention, and the frustration it was causing wasn’t enough for me to give up. And at the end, I want to know what happens next. So.
I won’t really be discussing plot, unless it’s spoiler tagged, because if you are going to read it, you should really go in knowing as little as possible. But to sum it up: if you have been craving a complex epic fantasy that you have to sit there and figure out as you’re reading it, you might try this book.
I say above that it was complex, but I’m not sure that’s true. I think it might actually be a pretty standard fantasy, but it’s dressed up in such a way that it seems complex. Lots of reviews have mentioned this book’s structure, and that’s certainly the most obvious thing used to convey complexity.
The book has a frame story, where our main character Kihrin is being “interrogated” by his jailer, a woman called Talon. She possesses a magical rock that will record whatever the person holding it is saying. They trade off holding the rock and telling Kihrin’s story in alternate timelines. Talon’s version starts about six months before Kihrin’s, while Kihrin is still a thief living in a brothel with his adoptive parents, and is told in third person by varying narrators (Talon has access to these memories because SPOILERS she is a brain-eating shapeshifter who imbibes memories along with the corpses of her victims END SPOILERS). Kihrin’s picks up six months later, as he is being sold in a slave auction to bidders who seem to want him far beyond his apparent worth. He tells his version in first person.
On top of the two narrators (who interject occasionally in italics), there is also a third character who is collating their story for someone he addresses as “Your Majesty,” and throughout the book, he inserts footnote commentary onto what is happening. The footnotes are often very clever or snarky, but sometimes they just felt like a way for Lyons to sneak in worldbuilding. The footnoter is also a character in the story, so that’s weird.
So that’s the structure. Which I’m still not sure has a narrative purpose? Additional POVs can be handy in providing different perspectives on the same events or characters, but the choice to have them alternate, as if while you were reading, you were constantly toggling back and forth between the beginning of the book and the 50% mark, seems designed more than anything to provide an additional layer of obfuscation so you’re just as confused as possible.
And on top of that! This book is OBSESSED with story elements designed to make you question everything to do with identity. Most epic fantasies have elaborate character trees, endless lineages, and in-world histories that provide texture, and oftentimes plot. And they are often tricky to navigate at the beginning, especially if characters have similar names to each other or there are so many that it becomes tricky to remember who did what and who is who. And that is all going on here for sure.
But that wasn’t enough! This book also has, as a part of its DNA, the significant presence of: shapeshifters (so a character might not actually be who they say they are, SPOILERS and are oftentimes actually dead and it’s Talon impersonating them END SPOILERS); reincarnation (so a character might also be other people that are important in addition to the main thing you know them as SPOILERS, i.e. how our main character is Kihrin but also in a past life he was S’arric who was also one of the eight gods, who also got possessed by a scary life-force sucking demon END SPOILERS); magical disguises/illusions (a character may be deliberately altering their appearance to hide their true identity); body swapping (there is a McGuffin here that makes this a very prevalent device in the story; there are so many characters wandering around who are really other characters but nobody knows SPOILERS which leads to tricky questions of paternity: who is the real parent of a baby when body swapping is involved?? END SPOILERS); and immortality (which makes it easy for a person who outlives everyone who knows them to constantly take on new identities). Often characters tick multiple of those boxes.
It is, as they say, A LOT.
All of that stuff keeps you so busy trying to figure things out, your brain doesn’t have room to grok whether the actual underlying story threads are all that interesting, at least emotionally speaking. You could argue with a storytelling style that overtly complicated, you don’t need anything super profound underneath, but I think the real test of the quality of a book is always re-reading. Once you know what happens, there needs to be enough there there to sustain emotional interest once there’s no more mystery to figure out. And I genuinely don’t know if that’s the case here! I’m still trying to figure out if I figured everything out (and this is only book one of five; she’s set to release one every nine months).
On a writing level, for those of you who care about that stuff, there were quite a few things that bothered me. The biggest thing is the use of contemporary American colloquialisms, many of which evolved in a culture that is entirely different from the one in this book, and thus make no sense coming out of Kihrin’s mouth (he is the main offender). I wish I had my copy with me right now so I could give a few examples (maybe I will come back and edit the review later*). Also, it just very much seems like it’s trying very hard, especially in the beginning while you’re still trying to slip into the world but are mostly just very aware of the writing itself. This book wants to be different, and lauded for it.
*I just thought of one: Kihrin actually says “my bad” at one point. If you are interested, here is the very specific etymology of that phrase. Please nobody ever use it again in a high fantasy novel.
I am going to read book two next month. I placed it on hold at the library ages ago, and I do want to know what happens. I’ve heard the second book is better, too. So we’ll see, I guess! If you like epic fantasy, this is certainly worth trying, I think, though just know going in that opinions are divided.