This is a story that is at once deeply personal and also epic. A contradiction? Not if the protagonist is Khraen. The stakes are intimately individual, and affect the entire story world. It’s about a man trying to piece together his past, trying to understand his own identity, and define it for himself…all the while struggling with questions about the nature of evil and the value of revenge. His decisions will shake the world to its foundations.
Khraen is a great main character. The story is written from a first person point-of-view, which immediately draws us into his personality, and gives us access to his deeply conflicted and splintered psyche. It’s quite a feat for Michael Fletcher to base his story around a character that is truly and deeply evil. Fletcher wisely begins with Khraen in a state of semi-innocence, a feral glimpse of nature that is animalisticly free of concerns over morality. He takes us on a grand corruption arc populated by well-constructed foils. From the get go, you can see his crimes, his equivocations, his mounting disregard for moral norms. But his journey is portrayed so intimately and authentically that you never give up on him. If this had not been so well-written, the latter half of this book would have seen its readers dropping like flies. Sure, a reader or two will still end up DNFing this book as they clutch their pearls, but…they probably should have known better. Credit to the author for not only making the story exciting, but the mysteries intriguing. He led us down the proverbial slippery slope one scene at a time until, somehow, we found ourselves rooting for a demon summoning mass murderer.
The plot is very well-paced and interesting. Right off the bat we are exposed to the central premise of the story; Khraen awakens in the wilderness, knowing that he is a man divided, that magic has splintered him into fragments. He must reclaim the shards of his heart in order for himself to be whole again. Every page drives Khraen on his quest to reclaim his identity or to forge a new one for himself. There were very few lulls in the pace of the novel and those I think we’re calculated to allow the reader time to catch their breath.
As the main character struggles to come to terms with his identity, he has to answer questions about the nature of evil. The more he discovers about himself, and more importantly about the things that he is willing to do to reclaim that self, the more directly he must face the mirror. Although this self-reflection, in most novels, would cause the protagonist to strive for redemption, Khraen is more than an anti-hero. Even he sees the things that he is doing as wrong, and yet he is willing to do them because he has set himself to a task, and to him, ultimately, the ends justify the means. I think different readers will respond to this in different ways, but for me it was well-executed enough that I am totally on board. Fletcher set the stage for a titanic battle, not just of wizardry and swordsmanship, but of morality. And frankly I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. In the end, maybe Khraen ends up a blood guzzling, demon humping, murder hobo. Maybe. Maybe not. But I’m here for it one way or the other. It’s sure to be a compelling ride.
With all that gushing out of the way, there was a thing or two that the author didn’t quite nail, in my opinion. Khraen is an outsider in terms of race throughout the story. Those around him revile him because of the color of his skin. As the narrative progresses, we learned that these biases are based on historical practices of demon summoning and the evil associated with it. By connecting these themes of race, evil, and bias, the reader can rightly expect the author to have a message about their relationship. However, in the end, there didn’t appear to be one. Khraen’s nefarious activities only validate the biases. Sure, any well-imagined world is complex, and an instance of validation doesn’t justify the bias, but ultimately, I was left wondering why the author had created all of these threads, if he wasn’t going to weave them into anything meaningful.
There were also a couple of twists toward the end that I felt were a little too telegraphed. Ultimately, on the theme of identity, there were some reveals that didn’t really feel surprising. Since it wasn’t a murder mystery, I don't think it impacted the narrative too adversely. I still enjoyed the end of the book and I thought it set up nicely for the rest of the series.
Speaking of what is to come…I’m excited. Black Stone Heart sets up the sequel for bigger stakes and darker consequences. This baby is gonna slap. Fletcher’s worldbuilding has dovetailed nicely with both character arc, and plot development, leading us into a new adventure in a new locale. Wizards, demonologist, ancient haunted ruins. She Dreams in Blood is out in two days. Two. Days. Sign me up.
All-in-all, this is a very well-written story. It is extremely unique in terms of its protagonist’s perspective, presenting a nearly flawless execution of the corruption arc. The first-person narrative is intimate, an essential element, if we are to understand the dark path Khraen takes. By natural inclination, I love stories that are this dark, but this one pushed even my boundaries. Buckle. Up. I think any reader who gravitates towards horror or grimdark aesthetics will absolutely love this book. Even if you don’t, it’s pretty friggin’ good. Just keep your pearls handy.
Final Score: 9