Airships! Secretive assassin-monks! Fanatic cults! The world at stake! Don’t let the airship on the dustjacket fool you, this isn’t your expected steampunk novel.
Ash is pursuing an official vendetta. He is a member of the Roshun, a secretive order providing protection services through the use of living ‘seals’ that die with their owner. They are highly trained, but Ash is old and the vendetta goes wrong. Captured, dying of cold, he makes a promise.
Nico left home to join the army, but they wouldn’t take him. His dog died, his pride won’t let him go home. He’s living off of what he can steal or beg when a botched theft introduces him to Ash.
Bahn, a soldier of Bar-Khos, faces the forces of Mann. Their walls are falling one by one, and news comes every day of a new victory by the Mannians. They are one of the last free cities.
The Mannians are the Empire, the ascendant nation. Fascist in nature, Roman in influence, they deny themselves no pleasure except weakness and emotion. Kirkus, the heir to the Empire, begins his manhood ceremony, the Cull, by killing a young woman of no apparent importance.
These strangers from all across the Heart of the World are brought together by the death of one insignificant girl whose father had bought the protection of the Roshun. Now, the Roshun are faced with a dilemma. If they fulfill the vendetta, the Empire will stop at nothing to make an example of them. If they don’t, their protection is worth nothing.
Buchanan’s world is huge, complex and vibrant. There are no shades of medieval Europe in this fantasy, and while the Empire of Mann is often similar to the Roman Empire, there’s a strange taste of post-apocalypse, too.
Farlander’s characters are also, refreshingly, not white. He brings diversity of skin-tone, belief, culture and personal history to the characters. I hope that the future books will delve more deeply into the history and details of this setting and bring it to life.
This is a debut novel, and as can be expected, there are some problems with pacing around the middle. The story picks up markedly as the reader moves along, gaining depth and subtlety as it moves along. The racial characterization and cultural portrayal are sometimes a little transparently related to Earth’s history. Again, I’m hoping that future books will continue building on this promising beginning.
There is so much in this book, so many places and things and people that it could be a horrible mess. Instead, the story is action-packed and unexpectedly dark. It is not a book for the faint of heart: there are quite a few graphic torture scenes, and if you are easily triggered, this is certainly a book to avoid.
There are moments of genuine brilliance hinting at a potential this book only really reaches toward the end. Overall, it is a readable, memorable first novel, and I look forward to the rest of the series.