Sing, Muse!: Moses Siregar III‘s The Black God’s War
Two very different realms have struggled against each other for years. The Rezzians, worshipers of ten deities, have engaged in a holy war against their godless neighbors, the Pawleons. With the birth of a royal son who is also a prophesied holy leader with divine powers, a Haizzem, the Rezzians feel that their long conflict against the Pawleons is destined to come to a swift conclusion.
And yet that very Haizzem, Caio, has fundamental doubts about the conflict. His powers to heal and to invoke his chosen pair of gods is strong, but he lacks the desire to prosecute the war he has been long awaited to lead.
So, too, do the figures on the other side of the war, Prince Rao,his lover, Narayani and his best friend Aayu, have doubts about the conflict and its prosecution.
Even with all of the doubts of these major figures, can a bloody conflict between two very different societies ever come to an end? And what would be the high price to pay to bring that conflict to an end?
The Black God’s War is a debut novel from Moses Siregar III, perhaps best known in genre circles as one of the triumvirate behind the Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing podcast and website.
The fantasy world of the novel strongly invokes real world mythology and culture. Although the deities themselves are different, the Lux Lucis, the ten gods of Rezzia, and their culture and practices are evocative of the ancient Greeks. They aren’t carbon copies of that culture, however, although Moses, a strong lover of mythology, clearly is invoking the Iliad and its tropes in the Black Gods’ War.
The Pawleons, on the other, felt a little less completely realized, but they, too, with their lack of deities but their unusual abilities remind me of post-Buddha South Asians and Indians. There are the slightest hints of other South Asian culture embedded into this cultural matrix as well.
The characters revolve around the royal families of Pawleon and Rezzia, and those close to them. The dynamics of the characters on each side are complicated, multi-sided, and most importantly, evolve and change over time. As Caio, Lucia, Ilario, Rao, Aayu, Narayani grow and change, their relations with each other change as well. I also particularly liked the clash of generations on both sideas, as the older parties and the younger parties have believable and well-drawn differences in attitudes, outlooks and desires.
The less central characters on both sides are a little less well drawn, even if their past and present actions are extremely crucial to the plot. The author keeps the focus pretty tight on the sextet of main characters and they get the lion’s share of development and care. While I do think that the Rezzian characters are a little more well drawn than the Pawleon, I suspect this is a consequence of Moses having written a novella excerpt of the novel first that focuses on the Rezzian side of the war, and having perfected that over time.
Theme is the strongest thing that Moses brings to the table. I’m not talking about the simplistic theme about the futility of war. Sure, that’s there, its clear, and it is a point of the novel. However, the author is not aiming solely at such a broad and wide target. Themes about friendship, loyalty, honor, the clash and conflict between generations, and most importantly, karma, strongly infuse the novel.
Theme is, to me, something that most writers do not and should not “write for”. I don’t think Siregar did that in the book. However, the themes evoked infused the novel strongly and is probably what I will take away most strongly from reading the book.
Another strength is that Siregar skates the line between description and purple prose to convincingly describe and bring the world and all that is within it to life. The use of quotes from the Iliad (and elsewhere) as chapter titles shows a clever use of language as well. The author does best when bringing the spotlight to people, places and things. He doesn’t overdo it, often, once described, the wonderful description earlier used will be briefly invoked, rather than hashed over again and again.
A taste of Moses’ ear for description, then, to illustrate:
Lucia scrubbed at the obstinate stains. Once certain she’d washed the blood away, she dragged the sopping cloth along the firm contours of her beige skin and recalled a bitter montage of recent dreams. She ran her dripping fingers down her accursed arms—now forced to bear even greater burdens. I have to tell Caio. There’s no other option. She stood with sudden conviction and dressed herself, looking to the goddess Ysa’s martial relics for courage. Ysa’s sword, shield, and silver armor rested on their decorated black walnut stand. She reminded herself how many royal men and women throughout more than a thousand years of history had carried these objects, and of all the miracles they’d invoked with the blessed metal to protect Rezzia.
Her round shield scintillated with hundreds of tiny crimson and amber gemstones forming ten concentric circles, a geometrical work of art. Ysa’s white sword was immaculately symmetrical, made of an inscrutable metal that had not been re-created anywhere on the planet of Gallea. Bright yellow and white stripes curled around the sword’s grip ten times until they met a golden, crystalline pommel.
The quote above, though illustrates one of the weaknesses of the novel for me, and a major one: The world building, especially in service to the plot. Time and again, as I read the novel, questions came to mind that gnawed at me. And worse, there were questions that the characters themselves didn’t seem to think to ask aloud. While more than a couple of these were mysteries of the novel that were ultimately resolved, others seemed to suggest a patchy, inconsistently evoked world that sometimes was enough to jar me out of the book. While an author has to avoid infodumping for fear of bringing the plot to a narrative halt, world building that is underdone prevents the mise en scene of the world that the author is building from fully forming in one’s mind.
To give one small example, the mention of the “planet Gallea”, as seen above Why do the denizens refer to their world as a planet and a named planet at that? It is, at best, an extremely unconvincing and discordant turn of phrase.
I’m of several minds regarding the gods of the Rezzians. Especially Lord Danato, but the other gods as well, seem a little too inhuman, alien and mysterious for my taste. I do note that they are very much like the gods of the Iliad, in that mortals can challenge them, but their nature, motivations and actions are mysterious at best and frustratingly opaque at worst. I do understand that the author is keeping the focus on the mortal characters, given how important the gods are to the plot, I would have liked some less opaqueness.
The other major shortcoming in my mind is a consequence of the plot and characters as set up by Siregar, but it is there nevertheless: the lack of a real antagonist. Siregar seems to be going for the situation and the working out of fate and karma as the true thing the characters strive against, but that is a relatively slippery and amorphous sort of opposition. When minor characters do come up with actions and plots that oppose the main characters, it feels a bit tacked on, and the resolutions of those actions feels like Siregar found those subplots far less interesting to write, develop and unfold.
Overall, I am on the fence about my overall reaction to the book. It felt like to me that although the themes and resonances are very good and very well invoked, there was a lack of questions asked by the author about his world, leading to the strange patchiness of world building that I mentioned earlier. Moses clearly has potential as a writer, and there are some very evocative passages and parts to the Black God’s War, but they are unfortunately less of a norm that I would have liked.