The Five Warrior Angels is a multi-volume dark fantasy series from Brian Lee Durfee. The Blackest Heart is the second entry and will be released by Saga Press on February 26th, 2019. I was provided with an ebook advanced copy by the author for this review.
Edit: After talking about my love of this book with the author it struck me how I perhaps minimized the quality of the adventure/fantastical sequences in my effort to intellectualize the big ideas. So in the vaguest of terms we have: journeys up, down, and through mountains and ice, a frightful forest where assassins are forged, an intimidating quarry full of slaves, sharks vs horses(oh my!), severed limbs that would make Obi Wan gasp, dank dungeons, haunted caves, legendary weapons, heart stopping action, and a charming blood sucking behemoth named Cromm.
In reading this sequel, I continually asked myself: What other contemporary fantasy can I compare this to? And honestly there’s no easy answer. For one, the scale of the story, its politics and religion, and number of POV characters makes it a little bit A Song of Ice and Fire. The focus on the inner lives and psychological turmoil of its not incredibly admirable or mature “heroes” remind me a little of Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer and Abercrombie’s First Law. And perhaps these comparisons are borne out of the tension that weaves throughout this novel.
This pervading tension is between the more traditional quest/hero’s journey plot and the more contemporary grimdark fantasy contemplation of trauma, post traumatic stress, and the complexities of belief and morality. This is the strength of this novel. It keeps the reader engaged on one or both of these threads continually while dangling new revelations/character development along the way.
And some of that character development is demonstrated in the new POV characters we are treated to in this entry, mainly Krista Aulbrek and Mancellor Allen. Without spoiling, these two characters did a lot for me in both fleshing out the world and giving me interesting people to root for.
Now at the onset of this review I alluded to a heavyweight fight. I want to let our audience know that this book was difficult for me at times both for the things it shows and the tension created by characters living in such difficult circumstance. Graphic sexual violence is again kept ‘offstage’ but what is shown(and only three scenes come to mind) is perhaps more than some readers may be comfortable with. And beyond that we are faced with more of the horror of war, violence, and corrupt power in both big and small ways. We’re dealing with some seriously bad and violent people/power structures here. Many of our POV characters are dealing with trauma from the first book while also having new troubles heaped upon them. Now nothing feels like it is done without purpose or intent. This isn’t about glorifying the darkness but rather showing how these characters endure it and battle against it as they seek solace in faith and friendship-with varying degrees of success.
What really stood out to me in making this novel a great read was how it fulfilled and exceeded the expectations and the questions set in the first volume. We are treated to some seriously big ‘payoff’ scenes that make the journey thus far well worth it. Some of that tension of trauma I mentioned in the previous paragraph is alleviated when we get to see a couple characters come into their own, make big decisions, and fight back. We also get some really fantastical set pieces and revelations towards the end that do not disappoint. There are Indiana-Jones-like horror flavored pulp adventures and blood sucking oghuls and shifting glaciers. And while our slightly more noble heroes don’t escape unscathed we also get to see some satisfying comeuppance in measured doses for a couple of our numerous villains.
The Blackest Heart is not for the faint of heart. It weaves together the adventure and intrigue of heroic quest fantasy and the violence-and-consequence of modern grimdark fantasy. It fulfills the promise of The Forgetting Moon while also breaking new ground for future volumes. Fans of Joe Abercrombie and R. Scott Bakker should invest their time in this series without delay.