Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Solaris/Rebellion; March 29, 2022 (paperback)
Solaris/Rebellion; June 22, 2021 (ebook/hardcover)

550 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

9.5 / 10 ✪

“There is no right and wrong, no black and white. Life is not such a simple thing.”

Think Gladiator, but with magic.

General Bordan was born into nothing, but after a life dedicated to the Empire, he has achieved what little thought possible. He governs the army, the might of the Empire. Other than the Emperor and his kin, he may well be the most powerful man in the Empire. But he is also its most loyal servant.

When the Emperor is killed fighting the tribes in the north, Bordan must do all he can to protect the heir to the throne until the Emperor’s body is returned to the city. Then, with the amulet of office in hand—and the powerful magics within under their control—the heir can ascend the throne and assume control of the Empire. But until then nothing is guaranteed. Rebellion is brewing in the countryside. Assassins lurk in every shadow. And worse, politicians surround the royal family, hiding forked-tongues behind their honeyed words and silky smiles.

Apprentice Magician Kyron and his master are assigned to the late Emperor’s honor guard, tasked with seeing the body home to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by many of their own folk, the magicians are both revered and hated in equal measure. But magic is necessary for this task, for keeping the body from decay requires it. And so their presence is tolerated, if little else. But with many leagues between them and the capital, Kyron and the guard face the greatest danger of all. For whomever controls the Emperor’s amulet controls the succession—and the Empire is not lacking in those hungry for power, be they foe, or friend.

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

Seriously, Seven Deaths of an Empire reminded me so much of Gladiator that I often found my self picturing events from the book overlaid with scenes from the movie. The battle against the tribes in the forest. The legion’s return to the capital. While there’s no fight in the arena, the novel does include a Colosseum, even though we never get a good look inside. Fact is, Seven Deaths of an Empire was ripe for the picturing beneath scenes of Gladiator in no small part because—as you will see once you read it—the world was inspired heavily by the Roman Empire.

Only with magic.

The magic system is quite a basic one, but as enthralled as I found myself with the story, its lack of creativity never really bothered me. This adheres to the law that the only ones who can wield magic are those born with it. This in part seems to be why magic users are hated, feared. Jealousy breeds resentment, they say. And the church and magic never really gets along—in this world or any other.

The two POVs were quite good at getting the story across, each in their own way. Kyron is a bit young, a bit whiny—but this is his coming-of-age tale, and he’ll grow on you once you get used to him. His character might even develop over the course of the story. Bordan, on the other hand, is an old hand. He’s guided the heirs to the Empire for years, as he once was like kin to their father. He is patient and humble, and though his faith is not what it once was, he has faith in the Empire above all else. This is his true strength, but also his greatest weakness. Unlike Kyron, this story does not serve as Bordan’s beginning. It is his swan song. But will he live to see the Empire crumble, or die keeping it intact?

There are a lot of questions that come up over the course of the story, as the past is hinted at and slowly revealed; as loyalties are tested and friendships forged; as the Empire is caught in the wind, and teeters on its foundations. There are many vines in this, and not all will end up bearing fruit. Still, it was quite a thing to see them all come together at the end—and, while not all is cleared up, the overwhelming majority of my questions were answered. All the big and burning ones are, at least. In writing this review a week or two later I was able to come up with a couple that weren’t returned (though I really had to think about it), but none kept me up at night after finishing the story.

TL;DR

Seven Deaths of an Empire may be 550 pages, but to me it went by in a blink. Although it did take a little while to get going. But where it took me 3-4 days to read the first hundred pages, it took me one day to read the rest. Two very strong leads (though they’re both men; it didn’t bother me, but then I typically connect better with male characters, being a guy and all) made the story no effort at all to get into. It’s so reminiscent of Gladiator that I found myself overlaying scenes from the film with the world I’d constructed in my mind. The forests of Germany. The roads of the Empire. The obelisks and Colosseum and wonders of the capital. It really is quite like the Roman Empire but with magic. A thoroughly engrossing read, almost the whole way through. I took a couple points off for the build-up, but clearly nothing that ruined the story for me. Thoroughly recommended! Just don’t expect a happy, sunny story—as this is a dark fantasy, very occasionally bordering on grim.

Ogres – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone

Dystopian, Novella

Rebellion/Solaris; March 15, 2022

144 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my bias. Many thanks to Rebellion/Solaris for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Torquell is a troublemaker. Young, impulsive, foolhardy—he is often treated like a precocious scamp by the people of his village. His father is less than pleased with this as he is the village headman, who would someday like his son to take over for him. But Torquell shows no interest in that, choosing instead to escape into the forest and spend time with the landless outlaws that roam the wood. And his father has made his peace with this, because there’s more dangerous things than those in the wood.

Those things are their landlords, their masters, their betters. The Ogres are larger than life, with great hulking bodies and strength and appetites to match. They are often ruled by these appetites, and their temperaments, which can shift to fury in a moment. For unlike ‘men, Ogres have a wild fury about them, often stoked by the foolish things mortal ‘men do. They might kill these monkeys on a whim, but they only rarely eat them.

Well, semi-rarely. Ish.

When Torquell lifts his hand to the landlord’s son, he calls down the Ogres wrath upon his kin. With nowhere left to turn, Torquell flees before the might of the masters, but finds it is often difficult to run from one’s destiny. For most ‘men are content to cower and serve, but Torquell is not most men.

He is a hero.


“My fellows are really not happy with you, Torquell.”

It’s such an understatement that you blink. “Good?” you try.

Ogres is a bit of an oddity as it’s written almost exclusively in the 2nd person. While that’s something that is often difficult to pull off, this novella handles it quite nicely. Part of this might be its small size (which at least helped), but the writing style and story also pair nicely with this choice, combining to convey Torquell’s tale as something of a legend, or epic. Which makes perfect sense, as Torquell is a hero.

Ogres starts as many other stories (especially dystopians) do: with an assertion. “This is how the world is”. And the point of the tale—at least in part—is to discern just how or why the world is this way, and what’s to be done about it. In this particular world, Ogres rule over their flock like gods; masters uncrossed and unequaled by ‘man, culling and controlling the populace to ensure no one rises above their place. With all the climate-change novellas that Tchaikovsky has put out recently, it’s refreshing to see a new tact. But while this may not be the obvious connotation (of a world ruined), it isn’t not that. I won’t spoil the mystery, as to just how or why this came to be, I’ll just say that you shouldn’t be surprised if there’s an allegory for life somewhere within. If you’re familiar at all with Tchaikovsky however, this will hardly shock you.

It’s quite a good read, honestly. Tchaikovsky’s short fiction is surprisingly good—often stronger than his novel-length works of late. And he’s been very consistent—pumping out 1-2 novellas a year like clockwork. One of the best parts about them is that they don’t read like a novella, and Ogres is no exception. Although it is a shorter read, the text does not skimp on world-building; the world is well-formed, detailed, and well-rounded, set up, and executed. While it loses some of this depth in the later stages, by then the plot is firmly int he driver’s seat and the audience isn’t going anywhere. I had absolutely no trouble reading this, and I hope you’ll prove the same. While I didn’t spend much time within its pages, Ogres left a long lasting impression, somewhat in contrast to its smaller size. The only negative I can give this is its price tag—which has become all the more common of late. $10 is too much for an ebook, particularly one that will probably only last 3-5 hours. But it’s no less expense than anything else nowadays, and is actually cheaper than a comparable story from the likes of Tor.com.

Mickey7 – by Edward Ashton (Review)

standalone

Scifi, Cloning, Aliens

St. Martin’s Press; February 15, 2022 (US)
Solaris; February 17, 2022 (UK)

304 pages (ebook)

Goodreads
Author Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, Solaris, and Rebellion for providing me with an ARC! This in no way affects my review. All opinions are my own.

Mickey7 is an Expendable, as was Mickey6 before him. And Mickey5 before them. All the way back to Mickey Barnes, a historian from Midgard with no options, no useful skills, and no other choice but to volunteer for his position on the expedition to colonize the ice world Niflheim. For Expendable was the only position he qualified for, the only one the expedition had trouble filling. For one would have to be insane to to volunteer for it. Insane, or desperate.

While an Expendable is the least desirable gig on a colonyship, it’s also a vital position. They can go where robots cannot—into the active core of a fusion engine. The can work systems meant for human hands—such as outside the radiation shielding on a spaceship. They can scout the deepest tunnels or highest mountains where a machine might otherwise be destroyed by acclimate weather or disaster. Not that an Expendable can’t be destroyed. They certainly can; it’s an integral part of the job. But while machines have advanced quite far by this point, an Expendable holds one key advantage over them: they’re cheaper.

Thus Mickey is scanned and reconstructed every time his predecessor dies—over and over til the expedition runs out of material to clone him or dangerous jobs for him to do. And it’s not likely they’ll ever run out of danger on Niflheim, where if the temperature doesn’t kill you, the insect-like natives probably will. But when Mickey7 falls down a hole into one of the deepest tunnels on Niflheim, he does the one thing his crew had never expected.

He survives.

And upon returning to base, Mickey7 comes across Mickey8—something no Expendable should ever see. For not even serial killers or child-rapists are loathed as much as duplicates, and if Mickey is discovered, then both of them can kiss their existence goodbye—something neither want, but what Mickey7 has gradually come to fear. For now he’s pretty sure that when his life ends, it won’t restart again when he’s Mickey9. After all, he can’t very well be Mickey8, can he?

But when the native species begins snatching humans from Niflheim, it’s up to the Mickeys to save the day by doing the one thing all Expendables are good for: dying.

He runs both hands back through his hair.

“I don’t know… I don’t know… they didn’t cover this situation in training.”

That’s the truth, anyway. Training was one hundred percent about dying. I don’t remember them dedicating much time at all to staying alive.

When I started Mickey7, I figured it’d be a nice diversion from all the fantasy that came in January, a quick read to start of the hectic month of releases February promises to be. But while I certainly got through it quick, Mickey7 left a lasting impression. In fact, it’s not only the best book I’ve read thus far in 2022, and one of the best science fiction novels I’ve read in some time, it’s also probably the best clone-themed book I’ve read, well, ever.

We follow Mickey’s POV throughout; he’s the one and only lead (told in third person). But which Mickey? That’s the trouble when dealing with clones. Which is the real one? Or are any “real” at all? Well, the book actually addresses this (and more) all while following one (or more!) Mickeys through their adventures within.

When talking about a science fiction thriller that specializes in cloning, the characters are really where you want to start. How are the clones as characters? Do they feel real, do they feel human? Now there’s almost always a sect in any given story that is against the idea of cloning. Usually religious or moral or philosophical. This is no different. The “Natalists” in this view clones as abominations, empty shells pretending to be human, and a mockery of all that God intended. For his part, while Mickey Barnes was never a natalist, by the point he reaches Mickey7, he’s not sure what to believe. And while most of the characters in this are quite strong, it’s Mickey7’s examination of his past and future states that make him so compelling.

Is he real? Well, certainly he can feel and die, so probably. But is HE Mickey Barnes? He can remember Mickey Barnes, along with all of his experiences as Mickeys 2 through 6, but only the parts that he uploaded to the cloning device. Otherwise, watching through his supposed memories from that time might as well be viewing the visions of a madman. An Expendable’s main duty is to die, and by the point that the text starts, Mickey7 has come to fear death. Over the course of the text, Mickey7 will share his current situation with memories of “his” past (via typically alternating chapters). While some of these did feel a bit like info dumps, the only time I was really bothered by this was toward the end, where I felt them sapping from the pace of the story. Otherwise they’re short or relevant enough that I didn’t think they detracted from the plot. In fact most often they added to it, and I actually came to look forward to them—be it either discovering what had happened as Mickey4 or 5 and how they died, or understanding just a little bit more of the lore surrounding the universe. One of my personal favorites is further on, when we discover just what makes duplicates so universally despised.

The supporting cast is also quite good. In a colony of 200ish, Mickey knows pretty much everyone’s names. But he’s not on great terms with them all. Especially given his job as an Expendable and all. Which makes total sense. If some dude dies all the time, you’re probably not going to be thrilled to spend a lot of time around him. But he’s got a girlfriend, a best friend, some acquaintances, and a whole lot of people who hate him. While not all the named faces get fulfilling roles, the named characters that Mickey does get on with (or very much doesn’t) have backstories, motivations, and ambitions all their own. Everyone has a different motive; which works well together in a story all about survival.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. Okay, so… there are two of us. Step 1) Don’t tell anyone. Check. No one knows—probably. 2) Keep anyone from finding out. Also check. One of us will probably die soon; Expendable and all. But with a crew of only a couple hundred and a small colony, there are only so many places to hide. 3) Don’t make it worse. No problem. In these science fiction thriller nobody ever makes any bad decisions. It’ll be fine.

So the story is all about mitigating and dealing with what follows, when things don’t go exactly to plan. Because when has anything ever worked out 100% like you thought it would—in real life, or a fictional dystopian world inhabited by ice monsters? As expected, Mickey7 blends excitement with humor. Very well, actually. It’s often dark humor, which I found paired quite well with the somewhat ominous tone of the story. Niflheim—as you might guess from the name (especially if you’re at least somewhat familiar with Norse mythos)—ain’t exactly a cheery place. So what follows is a tale of disaster mitigation that’s part comedy, mystery, thriller, adventure set on a scifi hellscape with hostile aliens and the constant threat of death—that’s also being deconstructed as part of a clone’s philosophical crisis. With… himself.

If nothing else I’ve said convinces you to try this book, I guess let it be the age-old question: will we get to see a Mickey9?

TL;DR

My average reading rate for a 300-odd book is about a week. It usually takes me time to warm up to the lead, the characters, the story, and really get into the swing of things. I finished Mickey7 in just over a day. That alone should tell you something. If not, maybe the clone questioning his humanity while trying to avoid actually, physically strangling himself trope will do it. Or that it has really very good ratings thus far. Or that it’s a story of damage mitigation set on an frozen world with hostile aliens where the entire environment is out to kill the colonists, but a multiple is the one thing that they can’t stand. Or that—in spite of how all of that sounds—it actually comes off as damn well realistic …should hopefully be enough to get you to give this a try. I loved it. I hope you do, too.

The Liar of Red Valley – by Walter Goodwater (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Horror

Solaris; September 28, 2021

368 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance copy of this in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my rating or review. Special thanks to Solaris and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Don’t Trust the Liar.

Don’t go in the River.

Don’t cross the King.

Red Valley, California isn’t like other towns. Sure, there are schools and grocery stores and restaurants. There are parks and businesses and bridges. There are forests and families and livelihoods. But there are also some things in Red Valley that aren’t in the rest of the world.

There are things that aren’t human, but aren’t exactly inhuman either. There are things that go bump in the night, but have been convinced not to do so here. Are are beings as old as time, and some things even older. There are rules that you don’t break, not if you want to live. And there’s power, power to rule the world—or remake it.

Sadie is just another small town girl. Born into Red Valley, she’s now well on the way to dying in it. A waitress at a local diner, Sadie’s life isn’t exciting or notable in the least. Except that she’s the only daughter of the Liar—and the Liar has power.

Not power like the King, but not insignificant either. When her mother dies, Sadie is forced to confront this power directly. For she is now the new Liar, and her mother’s power is now her own. But what is it, and how does it work? While her mother never explained the power to her, Sadie knows the basics. Someone comes to the Liar. They have money, and something about the world they want changed. They tell the Liar what they want changed, and supply the Liar with an offering of blood to do it. An offering that often enacts another price entirely. Ofttimes it’s something petty, something superficial. The more inconsequential, the cheaper it is for them. But something is missing from this, something that Sadie needs to know. Just where does the power come from, and how does she harness it?

Something she’ll have to find out quickly, for it’s not long before people come a’calling. The sheriff wants to use her new power, while the town junkie wants something else. And when the King calls on her, Sadie knows it can only get worse. But what is the real purpose of the Liar, and is it a fate Sadie even wants to share?

While I’ve most often seen this classed as ‘horror’, I didn’t find the Liar of Red Valley terribly “horrifying”. It was an interesting—and entertaining—fantasy debut, one that makes you think about the origins of power, authority, and the things that go bump in the night. The main thing I latched onto out of the official blurb was the “inhuman” aspect. Now there’s just enough of this in the book to make you think—but no more. I really would’ve liked to explore more of the things that bump in the night, not a mere one or two that show up in the text.

It is an entertaining read, fortunately. Entertaining with quite a few plot twists. Including one in particular that’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a doozy of a twist, one that both makes you think and makes you buy into the story like never before. Not that the story was a drag before that. This was never a difficult one to read. With a lively plot, a relatable lead, a decent supporting cast, a number of mysteries to solve, and an intriguing setting—the Liar of Red Valley had so much to love, and more.

Sadie’s mother is central to the plot, but we spend the entire book trying to learn more about her. She was a power in Red Valley, one that might have even rivaled the King itself. But what was her power? How did she control it? And what was the great Lie she told that everyone wants to get a hold of? It’s really a book of mysteries, not horrors. And the answers to those mysteries and more are just inside!

One Day All This Will Be Yours – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Scifi, Time Travel

Solaris; March 2, 2021

192 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own. All quotes are subject to change in the official publication. Don’t blame Rebellion, or me if they do.

One Day All This Will Be Yours is a love story for the ages.

Kinda.

I mean, there’s some sort of romance within, along with plenty of ages (since time travel and all), and it’s definitely a story, so there’s that. The rest of it basically answers the question: What would happen if a sentient nuclear warhead fell in love? Could it forever deny its baser instinct to eradicate life, or would it… boom?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Stalin and Hitler is cheating.”
“I don’t see why. Achilles is cheating, he never even existed.”
“Says the woman with three Jack the Rippers.”

The fight’s begun by then. It is…
Strangely hilarious.

Nobody remembers how the Causality War started. Really, there’s literally no one to remember—except for me. And I’ve forgotten.

See, the thing about screwing with causality is that eventually, it’s really hard to remember where the start of things and the end of things actually was. And that was before we broke time.

While I don’t remember who started the war—much less whose side I was on—I was the one to finish it. Then I tidied things up as best I could and came here, to the end of time itself. There was no place left for me where I’d been. Or should I say, “when I’d been”. But with time irreparably broken, there was only one place to go. And only one thing to do: see that it never happens again.

This is one of those stories where we never learn the narrator’s name. But his name’s not all that important, to be honest. Probably doesn’t even remember it himself. That’s the thing about causality and time-travel; it really messes with the old noodle. Sufficient to say he’s a time warrior—the last of his name.

The concept works really well. A time warrior, trying to prevent another time war before all of time is destroyed. Or, MORE destroyed, I guess. It being a time travel story, it made my head hurt if I tried too hard to sort everything out. The good news is: the book never tried very hard to sort everything out. Didn’t even really take itself seriously. Oh, there’s a plot, and a story, and they’re both lovely to boot. But it’s filled with tongue-in-cheek, sarcasm, and dark humor. Combined with the detailed, if not intricate, plot—it makes for an entertaining, intense, and often hilarious read.

[We] have a fine old hoot watching Hilter get chased round and round a field by an allosaur. It’s very therapeutic. And the thing about allosaurs is they can run really quite fast, and the thing about Hitlers is that they can’t, not really, or not for very long.

And that’s all before the love story kicks off.

I won’t say much about that, just that… it’s certainly something. I mean, I would totally read more romance novels if they were like this.

While the ending makes for a bit of a letdown (again, no spoilers), One Day All This Will Be Yours is another excellent example of the author in novella form; quirky, creative, unique, and incredibly entertaining.

TL;DR

One Day All This Will Be Yours is the idea time-travel novella—not too intense, not too serious, not TOO hilarious, but just enough of all those combined. Also, entertaining. Very entertaining. My personal choice for the greatest love story of all time (pun intended), the time warrior’s adventure is by no means boring before he meets his perfect match. And while there is a bit of a slump at the very end, ODATWBY provides a unique, amazing take on time travel, and causality itself. Definitely recommended!

And if you haven’t read any of them by now, Tchaikovsky is making a habit of putting out one or two novellas a year through Solaris/Rebellion. My most recent favs have included Walking to Aldebaran and Firewalkers. Look for him later this year with Shards of Earth, a full-length novel from Orbit, and Elder Race, a novella from Tor.

The Black Coast – by Mike Brooks (Review)

God-King Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Solaris; February 16, 2021

670 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Black Coast is the first in the brand new fantasy epic series, the God-King Chronicles. Instead of a novel of war or chaos, or another GoT-esque fantasy, Black Coast details the coming together of two very different cultures—enemies, even—as they try to live together in peace. It’s more of a… controlled chaos.

Saana, Chief of the Tjakorsha, has left home for the last time. Fleeing the Golden, an immortal draugr heralding the prophesied end of the world, the Brown Eagle clan arrives on Naridan shores seeking a new home—one that they will find one way or another. Daimon Blackcreek is the adopted son of the Lord of Black Keep, and when the raiders draw up on shore he fears the worst. But when the clan lays out their plea for peace he sees but two options. Either the Blackcreek’s can accept the raiders into their home and attempt to live as one, or the Brown Eagle may rebuild their home in the ashes of Daimon’s own. But his father has different ideas—and will never surrender to such savages. Leaving Daimon with one choice.

A choice that will guide him throughout the story.

Elsewhere a silent war rages between the two descendants of Nari—the God become flesh. While Tila’s brother, Natan, rules in Idramar, the Splinter King inhabits the east, living like a sideshow amongst the City of Islands. While at the moment the Splinter King offers little dissent, Tila knows that should anything happen to her brother before he produces an heir, the Splinter King will take center stage. And so she sets off on her own expedition to find this would-be King. And end him.

The characters Brooks has created have always been strong; as readers of his Keiko series will know. The characters of Black Coast exemplify this, with a few exceptions. The Lord Daimon Blackcreek is an honorable-enough man, doing everything he can to protect his people. He’s also a bit of a self-obsessed asshole, and a young and naïve one to boot. Chief Saana is the brave and innovative leader of the Tjakorsha, as such leading her people from their ancestral home to settle on the shores of their age old foes. A passionate leader, she remains quick to anger while still preaching the importance of peace. Jeya seems your prototypical urchin. Thief, ragamuffin, waif—she didn’t make a great impression at first, but upon digging into the text, the reader will learn that just like most other humans, she will fight just as hard as anyone else when the cause appeals to her. Rikkut’s a bit insane, but in a human way. Tila was the biggest letdown of the main cast. Sister to the God-King, Tila leads a double life, but nothing approaches the love that she holds for her brother. While I didn’t find her character weak, exactly, it was just hard to buy the disassociation between her two personalities.

My largest issue with this read comes very late in the book, so this makes it quite difficult to explain while still avoiding spoilers. Sufficient to say that it’s Saana, who up to this point has been a caring, doting mother, sometimes even going above and beyond the cultural norms her own tribe allows to keep her daughter, Zhanna, out of danger. While there are a number of events that prevent her from doing so throughout the book, when it’s up to Saana she will not risk the already tenuous relationship she enjoys with her daughter. That’s what makes this event so out of character; it’s the complete opposite of anything she’s done to this point—and it’s so blatant I found it a bit insulting to her character.

As for the plot, I was pretty much entranced from the beginning. Brooks has built a good one here: the blending of very different cultures clashing in obvious and unseen ways alike, several cultures with many and often fluid gender options while some are just the rigid two, a believable fantasy epic about peoples avoiding war instead of running flat into it. The main cultures and their interaction steals the show, as two particular ones take center stage—the Tjakorsha and the Naridans of Black Keep. While the Splinter King sub-plot and Jeya’s role in the City of Isles kept me more than entertained enough, the interactions between the two former enemies just wowed. I really have no notes or complaints: this was an INCREDIBLE story!

The world was large and well-built, with peoples and dragons (did I mention the DRAGONS???—multiple species of different and sometimes ridable dragons) and rumors and legends of more lurking at the map’s edges. Not only can I not wait to see more of the story, but I can’t wait to see what lies beyond the edges of the world that we’ve explored thus far.

Note: The map for the ebook version I was provided was shit—completely worthless. I was able to contact both Rebellion and Mike Brooks himself, each of which provided me a high-res version of the map and reassured me that the published version of the ebook would have a much better map. Hopefully it is, but if not… I have a map if anyone needs a copy.

TL;DR

The Black Coast is the fantastic high fantasy debut for Keiko author Mike Brooks. Telling an enthralling, action-packed, and ofttimes difficult story full of unique and human characters in a vivid, highly-detailed world. While each character had their flaws, they also had their own sets of motivations and experiences—some of which clashed over the course of the tale. For the most part each character impressed throughout, though there were a few hiccups over the course of this 700-page epic. The story of Black Coast was amazing, but its people and cultures stole the show—particularly their beliefs and interactions that swung wildly between peace and war throughout, sometimes at the drop of a hat. All in all, for a story that included dragons, witches, krakens, samurai, assassins, intrigue, plot-twists and more—the Black Coast is one book you need to make time for this year!

It’s early still, but the sequel, The Splinter King, is due to be published September 7, 2021 by Solaris.