“…I resolved to write this story down. The bard would have his story, and we would have ours.”
Author: Kevin Hearne
Category: High Fantasy
Make sure to check out this week’s podcast discussion over this book!
The story is told to the population of Pelemyn by Fintan the bard as the refugees from effected areas of giant attacks come seeking shelter. Every day he stands on a stage and uses his kenning (magic) to project his voice and alter his appearance to match that of the people whose stories he is telling. In between his stage-time the book is from the POV of the scholar Dervan who is transcribing the story being told for record-keeping.
Honestly, this method of story-telling is a little bit of a mess but it is an organized mess that for the most part is easy to adapt to. Occasionally there would be a chapter early on that didn’t seem to have any purpose, it was mostly just introducing a character but nothing would actually happen with that character until the next time Fintan talks about them. So it could feel a little disjointed at times. Once the story really got going though, this pretty much ceased to be a problem.
Also, because there is the time difference between the story and the storytelling, there is a unique aspect to this book in that it almost gives away spoilers for itself at times. It is mentioned that Fintan has to have met a person in order to appear as them. So remembering while reading that Fintan has had to have met all of these people at one point or another even though their stories can sometimes seem like the characters will never intersect helps make you wonder where the characters are going that will allow at least the one meeting with Fintan. Also there are things that Dervan hears or talks about that teases eventual happenings.
That said, the one thing that was a little difficult to keep up with was remembering that the story that Fintan is telling takes place roughly a year before Dervan’s POV. For some reason, it was just a little difficult to remember this while reading the book.
The shining light of this book though is the worldbuilding. The nations of Teldwen are divided both geographically and according to what magic each nation can use. All of the magic is elemental based and each nation only has one. So Bryn uses the water kenning, Rael uses earth kenning, Hathrim uses fire, etc. The cost of using large amounts of magic for any of the different types is that if the magic user pushes too hard, the magic will start to age them. The more powerful magic that is worked, the shorter the lifespan for the magic user.
Plus, it is unknown who exactly will be able to use the magic until they undergo a trial of sorts. Those seeking a kenning, called Seekers, will either die in the trial or emerge with the ability to manipulate their nation’s element.
The rules for this magic system are thus somewhat basic but really well balanced in their simplicity. There are not really any restrictions placed on what an element can accomplish beyond what is intuitive and how much the magic user is willing to age themselves to achieve something. While this seems kind of limitless it is, again, balanced out by the fact that all magic users abide by the same rules. No one nation is overpowered because all of the nations are overpowered.
For those that appreciate diversity in fantasy, this book is your book. Not only is the vast majority of Teldwen described as having very dark skin but there is also some LGBT representation as well. There is a little bit of the teenager stressing about coming out to his family but by and large, same sex couples seem to a perfectly normal aspect of life in these nations. This story doesn’t spend hardly any time at all on any sort of “coming out” plot line and instead just says “this is a thing” and the story doesn’t treat it like something “different” or “other.” It just is.
Futhermore, Hearne did a great job of describing the cultures of the various nations without lingering or focusing too much on any one. There are 6 nations to do that with in this book. The story is very much about all of them and they all get enough “screen time” to give the reader a good idea of who each people are and what their values are.
The only real gripe that I have about this story, and it is pretty minor, is the ending. That is to say, the sort of lack of one.
There are three plot lines in this story: the Hathrim giants invasion, the Bone Giants invasion, and some hinted internal division.
Only one of these plot lines is wrapped up in any sort of conclusion which made the book feel so open-ended as to make me feel like it wasn’t an ending at all.
Again, this is a pretty minor complaint as I went into this fully aware that there would be more books and I think that the open-ended nature of this first installation in the series will allow the next book to pick up right where it left off without having to pick up any momentum that would have been lost in pulling this book together into a huge climax at the end.
Finally, I found several quotes in this book that I just absolutely loved. I couldn’t find any place to put this in the rest of the review so I will leave it here at the ending.
“There is heroism to be found in great battles, it is true: warriors with stable knees who fight and know that they will die for an idea or for the safety of loved ones back home. But there are also people who spend their entire adulthood at a soulless job they despise to make sure their children have something to eat that night so that one day those kids may lead better, more fulfilling lives than their parents. The warrior and the worker both make sacrifices. Who, then, is more heroic? Can any of us judge? I don’t think I’m qualified. I’ll let history decide.”
I did not have large hopes for this book before but it pleasantly surprised me. They way the story is told, as a tale from a bard, is intriguing and a fun way to explain why we are getting this story. He acts out the different characters and is generally fun to listen to (I had the audio book).
The magic system is what I loved the most. It was kept simple but also interesting. The different countries controlling elements has been done in other stories but here not everyone gets the power. There is a test to receive them. You either succeed and acquire power, or you will die. I feel this is the first magic system where I have liked it but also said I would not go for the power if it was real. The chances of survival do not equal enough for my own taste.
The only real complaint I feel is that the beginning gets cluttered with characters extremely quickly. With a few pages feeling pointless, some of the characters could be introduced better. Note that it does clean up nice as the book continues but the begging is sloppy.
The last thing I have is I do enjoy that the characters that are gay in this novel, do not feel forced. Their sexuality is apart of their story and character, but it doesn’t define their character. I just want to thank the author for showing that homosexuality is as natural and apart of the real world as heterosexuality.