I’m not sure how many semifinalists I’ll end up with this year, I’m almost done with my batch of 15, and after this announcement, I’ll probably pick one or two more. Our finalist will be chosen after Kristen and I have both read each other’s picks and discussed it at length 😀
There’s a TLDR pitch at the bottom…
The Unreasonably Long Review:
This is a slower burn type of book, I didn’t read the blurb before I started, but it was obvious from the beginning this wasn’t going to be an action-packed battle filled book. This was focused on a murder-mystery. A murder that could have rippling consequences throughout multiple kingdoms if worst comes to worst. It managed to keep me guessing through a good chunk of the book, I wasn’t ever truly sure who was behind it all because the possible motives kept shifting my attention from one character to another. In addition to the original murder, there are other mysterious deals and schemes which add to the overall feeling of tension and anticipation. What’s with the illegal shipment of weapons, is someone trying to depose the king? Who knows!
There’s a short prologue which shows the murder that kicks off the book. The son of a duke and nephew to the king was murdered in a highly unusual way and during a time of extended peace with the Nilarians. The duke’s son was reasonably well-liked and didn’t have any known enemies, or any particular person with a clear motivation to kill him – especially in the odd manner in which he died. He was poisoned with a paralytic and then tortured and mutilated until he died. The murderer covered his body in runes and smeared similar symbols all over the walls, leaving a morbid and curious scene for the investigators to find later.
The king was willing to try every avenue available to him to find those responsible, he assigned his Champion, Brannon, as the leader for the investigation. The king even sends word to Djinan for help – contacting the Djinan’s is considered a long shot since the Djin shamans stick to themselves and purposefully stay out of the politics of other nations. The king thinks it’s worth a shot because the runes and symbols that were all over the duke’s son and walls looked an awful lot like the ones used by Djin shamans. One of them shamans did agree to come and take a look at the scene and give her opinion on the matter. Her name is Ula and she’s sort of a badass. What she discovers is that there’s someone out there either trying to frame the Djin, or they are trying to create a “Raised” (aka undead) without proper training or permission. The shamans create these Raised for a reason – to drain the power of demon spirits known as a “Kaluki”. They are summoned into a dead body because uses up their power which ensures they never have enough strength to break through to the human world. They are summoned to the body, then bound to the shaman, then drained, then sent back to their realm weakened. There is a lot of danger that goes into creating a Raised, and things can go really wrong really fast. It’s absolutely forbidden to put a Kaluki in a living body because it makes the Kaluki too powerful to bind, in effect, making a superhuman who’s bent on destruction that runs loose in the world. Brannon and his team of investigators have to figure out why someone killed the duke’s son like this, what their motivation was for attempting to perform the Raised ritual, and how to stop them before they mess up and do something catastrophically dangerous.
If there’s going to be a “main character” in this book I’d say it was Brannon, it felt like his chapters took up the most page time. He’s a veteran soldier who served in the last war and he’s also the King’s Champion. Since they’ve been in an extended time of peace he’s also been trained as a physician, he appears to enjoy his work and would prefer if he never had to go to war again. He’s a pretty level headed guy, not quick to anger or quick to judge, and is a fair bit more diplomatic than some of his team members. He wasn’t thrilled when he was assigned an apprentice, but it is what it is. He takes his oaths as a physician seriously as well and cares for his patients. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon but nothing outrageous, he’s not terribly unpleasant to be around.
There are a bunch of POV’s in this, so it would be a little much to talk in-depth about all of them, but one of the characters that stuck out to me was Ula. She’s a Djin shaman, has purple skin, dreadlocks, and she’s tattooed head to foot in runes. At first, I found her dialogue a little jarring, it had a very abrupt ‘broken English’ feel to it. Her society is secluded and keeps out of other countries business, so while it makes sense her foreign language skills are weak I couldn’t help how I reacted to it at first. I did eventually adjust to her speech, and as she spent more time around the other MC’s her use of their language became less choppy and her dialogue became less jarring. She is sort of sarcastic, doesn’t take shit from people, and has her own magic that’s unique to her culture. She calls upon spirits and elementals to assist her eg: water spirits to speed her boat along. It contrasts nicely with Dreason’s spells and magic type which is more along the lines of a classic wizard. Her tattoos aren’t just for decoration either, they keep out the Kaluki spirits so no Kaluki could ever gain the knowledge of the shamans (which would be bad). I liked that the tattoos served a purpose and weren’t just there to make her stand out superficially.
Briefly, some other characters I enjoyed: Taran the priest who’s fond of poisons, Draeson the 400-year-old mage who’s in a brand new body, and Ylani the Nalarian ambassador who appears to have a bunch of shit she’s hiding. These side pov’s were often introduced after we had gotten to know them a little bit through other pov’s – it made the head-hopping much smoother and I always appreciate that. It’s not common for me to enjoy books with more than 5-6 pov’s, I oftentimes find that having too many pov’s jumbles the story and creates an imbalance in the pacing. However, the way this was done those pov’s helped tie things together rather than pull the story in too many directions. Because these secondary pov’s started out as side characters, when they got their own chapters it felt like the little group of people I was watching gained more and more depth with each side character that became a pov character. I was especially happy to get Draeson’s pov.
The world-building slowly unfurls throughout the book which kept it engaging while avoiding being overwhelming. New information was well-timed and kept me eager to find out more without feeling like it was too much too fast. Info dumps weren’t a problem and I still felt like I had a good handle on what the world looked like, how the magic worked, and how the different cultures interacted with each other. The magic was a highlight for me and it kept in line with the mysterious tone the rest of the book delivered. Draeson the 400-year-old mage has a moving dragon tattoo that keeps getting brought up but deliberately left unexplained, it’s both intriguing and frustrating. Draeson has the ability to produce wards that look like guard dogs and can move/sniff around. He can freeze a crime scene in time using a crystalline encasing, he’s able to hold back a river’s worth of water and then let it go when enemies try and cross a river. It was all very old school high powered mage type shit. There are very distinct cultures in this as well, and since we get at least one pov from each major culture it helped bring those cultures to life rather than having it serve as background noise.
This was one of the cleaner submissions I had in my batch this year, as far as spelling and grammar are concerned. Most of the books in my batch had at least a handful of errors, while some of them had dozens. I only found a few things that kind of bugged me, one being the misuse of “pouring over a book” instead of “poring” – and a couple other grammar things along those lines. Another being the misuse of poisonous vs venomous which is a personal pet peeve and probably isn’t at all important to anyone else. All things considered, those examples are nitpicking because overall the book was pretty well-edited.
As stated in the beginning, this is a slower burn book, it takes a while to get to know the cast, it takes a while for the world to reveal itself, and the whole book is shrouded in multiple mysteries. That said, I think the pacing was steady and consistent – if you’re looking for big battles and loads of fight scenes this may not be for you. If you’re looking for intrigue, politics, backstabbing, and high stakes murder-mystery then I definitely recommend this one.
TLDR Pitch: Murder mystery politics, high stakes trade deals, possible coups, wizards, shamans, and the undead. Nice array of different characters, engaging magic and worldbuilding. For those who like multi pov, old school magic, mystery/intrigue, and slow-burn books.
- Plot: 13.5/15
- Characters: 13/15
- World Building: 13/15
- Writing: 12.5/15
- Pacing: 11/15
- Originality: 11.5/15
- Personal Enjoyment: 8.5/10
Final Score: 83/100 –> 8.3/10 SPFBO –> 4.15/5 stars on GR