Warning: This novel contains portrayal of cannibalism, rape and a few more mainstays of grimdark fantasy.
The Great Hearts is a grim-dark fantasy novel with a pinch of sword’n’sorcery, seasoned with the barest hints of sci-fi towards the end. It is the first of a series of books centred around a pair of Imperators, Calidan Darkheart and Casius, his childhood friend.
If you’re unclear on the meaning behind the title of Imperator, have a look at the blurb:
Calidan Darkheart is an Imperator. The voice of the Emperor in the wild. A secretive and dangerous job, hunting down those deemed a threat to the Emperor's rule...whether monster or man. Twisted and bitter, he heads down a dark path to hunt a nightmare from his youth.
This is his story.
Promising enough, that. In fact, if I had to use a single word to describe ‘The Great Hearts,’ I would call it promising. A great many good ideas are to be found in this novel; however, they are bogged down by several problems I will touch upon during the length of this review.
To this purpose, welcome to The Good, The Bad, and The Meh! In these three sections, I’ve broken down everything I liked, disliked or was utterly indifferent towards in ‘The Great Hearts’!
- The modifiers: A good modifier at the right time can paint the most vivid scenes in the reader’s mind. When adjectives and adverbs are used too often, the result is a rather more dense body of text which pulled me out of the world rather than gripping me. There’s no need to describe the shout of men chasing children around a forest for hours or days as angry; everything else in the scene already speaks to that emotion. This is but one of many examples I
- The punctuation: A lot of commas are missing, which caused misunderstandings during my read, forcing me to go back and reread a sentence or an entire paragraph in order to figure out what the author meant.
- (Un)Intentional Misdirection? The novel the blurb presents is different from the one I read. Where I first thought the story would follow an older Calidan who has already become an Imperator, I was surprised when the author chose to recount not only the event that led our protagonist on this dark path but recounted most of his training and first trial, as well. The time spent with the older Calidan, the one I thought the story would be about, is less than 10% of the entire novel, in fact.
- Unnecessary explanations: Several times, Calidan goes into detailed descriptions of events that the reader is capable of intuiting on their own.
- A very open ending: I’m a sucker for the good old-fashioned cliffhanger but ‘The Great Hearts’ doesn’t so much end on one as it just…stops. The bad taste that left was somehow offset by an interesting Epilogue.
- Character Interaction: While most of it is good, I couldn’t help but feel that the dialogue would occasionally veer off into the realm of exposition at the cost of characters’ unique voices. This doesn’t pop up too often at all, but it’s noticeable enough.
- The Battle Scenes: David Oliver’s writing is at its best when he’s writing action scenes. With hardly any adjectives out of place, the combat is kinetic and well-described. Whenever fights broke out, I was glued to the screen.
- The Shift in Tone: Over the last few months, I’ve read some indie grimdark fantasy books that were dark for darkness’ sake. Even to someone who enjoys the genre, the constant barrage of hopelessness can get exhausting. That’s why I was very pleased when, after a bleak opening, ‘The Great Hearts’ switches gears and becomes a lot lighter, for a time. This shift in tone is done well and never felt unwelcome or unearned.
- A likeable Cast: Just about every single one of the side characters was likeable, even if some could use more development over the next instalment. Cassius and Calidan are two well-developed characters, very different from one another but connected by the strongest bonds of friendship. The Great Heart herself is a gigantic panther, and Calidan’s animal companion.
As a side note, I will admit that I was surprised by how nice some high-ranking military men were to a bunch of 11-12-year-old kids.
A lot is going on in this novel. I commend David Oliver for a first novel rich with ideas, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next. All the complaints I have can be taken care of, as the author grows more experienced, as well as with another draft or two.
You’ll enjoy this book if you are:
- A fan of dark coming-of-age stories;
- A grimdark aficionado;
- A very large panther looking for companionship;
- And more! Prob’ly.
SCORE: 3/5 Stars!