I’m a Linux admin by day and fantasy writer by night. I was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey and relocated to San Jose, California in 1999 to work in the tech industry there. After living in California and Texas, I moved to Finland in 2013. I have a book review blog and currently working on my first fantasy book.
Seraphina's Lament is one hell of a debut.A word of warning: This book is grimdark as grimdark goes. It is not exactly the bleak and nihilistic kind, but it is grimdark so if you are looking for a dark, gritty story with some disturbing scenes and highly damaged characters, this is your thing. If you love Mark Lawrence books this is definitely your thing. For one it opens with a killer prologue featuring abject cannibalism. There is violence and gore but it is not a gorefest -the grimdark is more in the characters. Every single one of them is broken and the main theme of the book is "You must break in order to Become" it is quite a thing to see these broken characters getting even more broken. Sarah Chorn takes broken to a whole new level. I gotta say this is one of the best grimdark debuts I've read.
The story is highly inspired by the Holodomor starvation massacre engineered by Stalin (not to mention the villain is literally Stalin!) The setting is a secondary world based on the early period of Soviet Russia with the addition of magic, slavery and a rigid caste system. Holodomor is pretty much unknown in the Western world since it has been covered up by the Soviet regime for decades and the world never got to hear about it. Some of the darkest things that takes place in Seraphina's Lament are unfortunately not fictional, such things happened to real people and that is what makes it disturbing. So this book is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Then there is the prose. Oh my gods the prose. It is so stunningly beautiful and savagely stunning. I highlighted so many quotes it's not even funny, had a real hard time selecting quotes to feature in this review cause there are too many. Here is one:
“She wondered if she would shatter. If she’d spray shards of herself into the ether. Perhaps all of her jagged edges would shine in the night sky like stars, glittering and beautiful, each of them a priceless jewel crafted from the fabric of her soul.”
Sarah Chorn's vivid imagination is ubiquitous throughout the whole story, even in beats like this:
“Silence stretched between them, pulled tight and then snapped.”
“Sometimes that quiet space between heartbeats says more than a scream ever could.”
Then there's those that hit right in the feels:
“Love is the only thing that can kill a person, and keep them alive enough to feel that death at the same time.”
She tells the horribly dark and brutal things with such beautiful words in an incredibly poetic and elegant way. I talked about the beauty of the prose but Seraphina's Lament is mainly a character driven story and the characters are all complex, more or less damaged and various shades of grey. They are all compelling one way or the other, they surprise you with different facets and choices.
I have to say Seraphina is the best disabled character I've ever read along with Abercrombie's Glokta. And she has a FIRE CANE! This will show up later on (not a spoiler) and absolutely badass. She shows how one can be broken and still kick serious arse.
“I am broken,” she murmured. “I used to think that was a bad thing. Now, I realize that the stars are pinpricks in the night, holes in the heavens. Even the sky is shattered and more glorious for it.”
This one in particular is my favorite description of Seraphina's nature:
“She had been in a dark place, planted there like a seed. Now, she was blooming. She was a flower. Though when her petals fell, they fell like daggers and the earth shuddered when they struck true.”
Seraphina is literally a force of nature, so broken yet so tough. She is physically disabled and lives with excruciating pain but she is the toughest character. Her twin brother Neryan is nothing like her and their conflicted relationship adds interesting twists to the storyline. Neryan's friend and rebel comrade Vadden was one of my favorite characters, he is one of the most virtuous figures in the whole book but not without skeletons in the closet. No one is entirely good or evil. Even Premier Eyad the chief villain is not pure evil -there are the glimpses of his humanity and the gut-wrenching love story between him and Vadden add hell of a lot of depth to his character.
The magic in Seraphina's Lament is elemental and mind magic, it's not a formulated system like Sanderson's magic systems but so powerful and enthralling when it shows up. I loved the stunning and sometimes terrifying displays of magic. Then there are the mysterious Ascendants, the sleeping gods waking up to see the world dying and manipulate things behind the scenes. Lyall is the coolest of them all, he is so enigmatic and awesome, I reaaaallly hope to see more of him in the sequels. I have a feeling the Ascendants will take a bigger role in the next books and a lot of interesting things will be revealed.
One of the most compelling characters is Taub, grimdark star of the prologue -a peasant farmer who loses everything and becomes the personification of dread famine. The passages describing him are haunting and lyrical:
“He’d shrugged off his humanity. He’d eaten his morality, chewed it up and swallowed it long ago. That had been his last true meal, and it had gone down as smooth as perfectly aged wine, disappearing into that black void never to be seen again.”
His POV chapters read like a horror story and season the plot with super grimdark ghost pepper sauce. I hope this book takes off and they make a movie of it, cause Taub the would make such an epic eldritch horror character on the screen. Neryan's adopted daughter Mouse is a great one as well. Who doesn't love a street urchin? I have a soft spot for thief kids and street urchins in fantasy books, but Mouse is soooooo much more than that. Her inner conflicts were some of the most touching parts in the book.
Seraphina's Lament is a literary grimdark gem with gorgeous prose, kickass plot and a perfect mixture of action, emotional depth, epic magic and unforgettable characters to say the least. I'm so looking forward to reading An Elegy of Hope, the next book in the series. I have a feeling this series might end up as one of the top reads of the grimdark subgenre.
Blood of Heirs is the debut book by Australian author Alicia Wanstall-Burke and the first book of a series. This is a coming of age book, I'd categorize it as YA fantasy that is great for the grown-up audience. I am not a big fan of coming of age stories, but this one impressed the hell out of me. First of all, big kudos to Alicia for writing such a great story that is free of ever-so-irritating love triangles and keeping the romance element to an absolute minimum. One of the reasons I steer clear of YA except for the books that are vetted is the horrendous teen angst, excessive romance (or main plot being romance) and love triangles. That is a huge turn-off for me, and even the romance dose in the mighty Wheel of Time irritated me to no end. Romance and love triangle stuff aside, the characters are highly compelling and the storylines flow smoothly with brilliant twists and turns.
The two main characters are the youths Lidan, who is the daughter of a tribal chieftain, and Ran, the prince of a duchy. Lidan is my second young girl character after Mark Lawrence's Nona. She is such a tough cookie, so tough and determined, and her character growth is just excellent. Ran is a flawed and likeable young lad. There are quite a few side characters, some have brief parts but they are pretty vivid and alive. Their storylines go independent of each other and do not converge (but might in the next books! You never know.) Both plots are gripping and feature well fleshed-out side characters.
The setting is quite different, it is a pre-modern fantasy setting but different. Lidan's tribal society is fascinating and the whole setting there has a Bronze Age feel to it. All the tribal traditions and culture are impressively realistic and showcase great worldbuilding skill. I'd say the tribal part was on par with the tribal people in Malazan books (and I don't compare anything to Malazan so lightly!) Lidan's mother is one of the best side characters, she is a horribly abusive bully but so incredibly realistic, quite a few of her scenes made me flinch. She is not 100% bad, however, she is a grey character which is what makes her so intriguing.
Ran's country is medieval-like, with brutal laws and merciless traditions. There is lots of military action, siege battles and sorcery going on there and I gotta say I loved those parts being a battle and military fantasy lover. Lots of breathtaking action and suspense-heavy journey parts take place through Ran's arc. Very different characters and settings, but the switching between the two are so smooth you don't even notice.
Overall I gotta say Blood of Heirs is top notch in every regard. Not only the worldbuilding and the characters are quite impressive, but the action never lets up and there is not a single slow, dragging moment in the whole book. Even the non-action scenes and side quests kept me turning the pages like an addict. I adore Rothfuss's gorgeous prose but slogged through half of The Wise Man's Fear and in Blood of Heirs there was not a single page I can call a slog. This book is a stunning debut to say the least and even if you are no fan of coming of age stories, it is nothing like the "typical" coming of age stories and quite a thrilling read.
Disclaimer: The review below was written by Rita, who selected Pilgrimage to Skara as her semi-finalist. While Petros didn't share her strong feelings about the book, he still found it to be better than all other semi-finalists, and chose to send it as BookNest's finalist to the 2nd round of the SPFBO, with a 7/10 score.