The beauty of fantasy is that you just never know what you’re going to get. Even when it sounds like a conventional plot theme, an accomplished author can put a new spin on it and produce something special. I was nervous about this one - a war between Angels and Demons, waged with the help of humans? It sounded trite - but as I read on, it turned into an absorbing study of magic, and an unexpectedly thought-provoking analysis of war.
The central character is Darius, a wizard who has built
an elite troop of soldiers around him, a sort of special-ops with magic.
There are numerous other characters in his world - his fellow wizards
in the city of Bastion, some of his soldiers, and, on the opposing side,
the warlord and his sorcerors. And a few angels and demons put in an
appearance, too. Although Darius is the main point of view character,
several other characters have point of view chapters too, partly to fill
in details of events in other places and partly to fill in background.
Of course, this also serves to give them more depth. I’m very much a fan
of this way of writing which is nicely fluid and works well to keep the
action moving. Having a single POV protagonist is very restrictive, and
having equal rights always feels artificial to me.
world-building is rather well done. The field of conflict between the
two warring sides seems rather small and empty - a city or two, some
fortresses and not much else. But it becomes clear that there’s a reason
for this, and there are other settlements and cultures existing around
the fringes and beyond the immediate range, and in the past there were
more. The history of this war, in fact, is very much a central part of
the story and the author draws out the strands of the past very
elegantly. And then there’s the magic. The real meat of the story, for
me, is the growing realisation (on both sides) that magic is not just a
static ability, it can grow and be developed in all sorts of new and
ingenious ways. The way that Balkan, for instance, researches and then
experiments with new forms of magic, and even a sort of magical
technology, is fascinating to watch. Even wizards, it seems, must adapt
and change with the times.
Ultimately Darius is forced to face
up to the consequences of the current war and its escalation, and decide
whether having the angels on your side is sufficient reward for the
constant battles and deaths caused by the demon-supported enemy. This is
a fascinating train of thought - is it really such a great idea to have
angels bringing you healing and other gifts, or are you better off on
your own? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this argument before, or
at least not so explicitly. And so, eventually, the story reaches its
own answer to the question, or at least sets events in train for it to
be discovered (in a future book, presumably). The final conflict is
huge, an earth-shattering experience which changes everything. It should
be an emotional overload, but somehow it just - isn’t. If I have one
complaint about the book, it’s that somehow there isn’t enough emotional
engagement with the characters and their respective fates. Even when
named characters died, I didn’t feel it. The author sets everything in
place and pushes all the right buttons, but for me it simply didn’t
work. I don’t know why that should be, it’s a complete mystery to me,
and I can only assume it’s just a matter of mood.
I had some
minor quibbles along the way. I felt there were too many important new
characters introduced late in the day. Sometimes the attempts to
humanise characters were a little clunky (the family lives of Balkan and
Pendrick in particular). I would also have liked to have Traigan, the
enemy warlord, make an appearance at the end, since he had been such an
important part of the plot, and I wondered what happened to the thralls
at the end. I’m not mad keen on angels and demons in fantasy, since
inherently good or evil characters are a bit dull, but in this case the
author showed a much more complicated and interesting side of the
angels, at least (the demons were - well, just demons, on the whole).
But on the plus side, the characters all behaved sensibly and
intelligently, and I very much liked the way that Arric (the council
leader) and Darius overcame their initial hostility and reached a
working accommodation. In fact, the whole story simply oozes
intelligence, and easily overcame the modest amount of clunkiness here
and there in the writing, or the very small number of typos. An
enjoyable and thought-provoking story, notable for the well-developed
world-building and constantly evolving magic system. And a map - always
extra brownie points for a map. Four stars.