RED SEASON RISING by Dominick Murray is a dark epic fantasy story about a recently-made independent fantasy kingdom which finds itself under siege by an unknown race of humans, their very powerful new god, and their former Imperial rivals. It opens in a intriguing way with a secret series of assassinations spread throughout their borders that forces the protagonist on a forced march through horrific weather conditions--only to find out the message he brings is occurring throughout the realm.
The best part of the book is the start where we get the unusual depiction of a borderlands garrison and our protagonist dealing with the uncertainty of an ill-suited commanding officer, a useless dead-end position, and no way of calling on reinforcements. I could have read an entire book set in this underused setting. Instead, this is but the start of a very long journey which takes our protagonist across the entirety of the continent.
I like the character of Kalfinar but I also admit he's something of the book's biggest weakness. Perhaps it's because I've been exposed to so many protagonists who are dark, brooding, middle aged men with tragic pasts that I expect a bit more. He's a fine vehicle to view the world through but he does seem like an observer to events more than someone with many strong opinions on what's going on at times, though. While he can sometimes be a fascinating character in his sullen brooding, Kalfinar is also quite a bit more detached from the action than I think the series needed.
This would be forgivable if there was someone who could contrast against Kalfinar but virtually everyone in the book is a brooding and sullen sort that you would think the story takes place in the land of Cimmeria. Everyone seems to be oppressed by the coming war and while that's perhaps believable, I couldn't help but think everyone was in The Walking Dead versus a Medieval Fantasy novel.
Thankfully, this flaw is made up for by the fact battle is visceral and chaotic with a sense that no one is unbeatable and death is a constant threat from even the least wound. Action isn't the most memorable part of the book but it's certainly up there and the author has a gift for righting exciting but plausible combat. One of my favorite scenes of combat in the book is when our protagonists are visiting a foreign city, only to encounter a monster summoned by the local magic and being completely thrown by it the way someone from our world would be. You don't see that very often in fantasy.
D.M Murray has created a thoroughly detailed setting for his fantasy series with peoples, religions, countries, politics, and age old blood feuds that all feel authentic. I definitely could believe this was the story of people who really lived and it also benefited from paying attention to an often-overlooked element of real life: travel times. The journey from one location to another is not perfunctory but a serious concern as not only is travel perilous but delays in sharing information or joining battles mean the difference between victory or defeat.
Despite the presence of magic, gods, and demons in the book--it feels surprisingly low fantasy and is more of a historical work. I liked this view because it's easier to sympathize with everyone in a more grounded and realistic universe. The battles are extremely well done and there's some truly spectacular ones spread throughout with an especially big one at the end. Readers should be warned this book ends on a cliffhanger with no resolution as the series is meant to be a long runner.
In conclusion, this is a good dark fantasy book weighed down a bit by a brooding protagonist that doesn't differentiate himself enough from his supporting cast. Even so, I definitely recommend this for those who want a well-developed fantasy world with epic battles plus the heaviest sense of foreboding since the Starks first said the words "Winter is Coming."