This is the last book in my SPFBO batch, and to be honest I wasn't expecting much since I had two strong books which got high praise from the other folks. After checking its Goodreads profile, my expectations dipped further since it has only one rating, one review, and a cover that is far from attractive.
However, this book grabbed me from page one and I ended up turning the pages at the airport with 4 hours of sleep, during the flights and in whatever free time I could find during my extremely busy work travel schedule. I haven't been so surprised by an indie book before.
Pilgrimage to Skara is a standalone and features a post-apocalyptic, early-modern type setting. It's basically flintlock fantasy, and I absolutely dislike that kind of setting. Flintlock fantasy books, even the highly popular mainstream published, best selling ones, sit at the bottom of my TBR cause I prefer epic fantasy with premodern setting. I am also not a fan of standalones. In other words, Pilgrimage to Skara is far from my preferred type of fantasy book, yet I still loved it to death.
The writing is sharp and crisp, reminding me of Mark Lawrence and Michael R. Fletcher style. The characters and the relationships between them are complex, the main protagonist is excellent, the supporting characters are compelling and the dialogues are absolutely top notch. Not to mention the setting was incredibly cool and had some awesome elements. The tension is perfect, even the slower scenes have the right dose of suspense and the action/fight scenes flow smoothly. Despite the many typos and line editing issues, the outstanding writing and characters more than make up for it. Normally such things pose a distraction and make it difficult to read on, but not in this book.
The main protagonist Pell Wendt reminded me a bit of Sand dan Glokta from Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, with a pinch of Jorg from The Broken Empire and and a dash of Bedeckt from Manifest Delusions. He is morally ambiguous, sharp-witted, wise-cracking, not to mention a formidable killer. He has a complicated past which haunts him, and his messed up relationship with his former lover Vyma, who is now the head of the most powerful house makes things interesting.
The political intrigue between the houses and the mysterious tyrant called the Ajudicar ruling the city adds more spice to the story.
Wendt is a retired pathfinder who used to take supplicants to the shrines in the dangerous Outlands. Folks with the compatible aura readings are selected to go on pilgrimage to the shrines calling for them, and come back with magical gifts. Vyma's daughter Keilie ends up being the supplicant pulling Wendt out of retirement, for she is called by the most remote shrine no one has gone in centuries and Wendt is the only pathfinder with the ability to cross the harsh places on the way. Keilie's character development is stellar. She is a great complex female character, with a lot of different facets and definitely doesn't end up coming weak in the presence of a superb character like Wendt. This is not easy to pull off, hats off to Jonathan Pembroke for his character writing skill.
My other favorite supporting character was Chals, which is the sort of Tom Bombadil figure in the story, but takes on a bigger and more present role as the story develops. His impish ways and humor brighten the bleak, gritty setting and create some balance. The Ajudicar character is another well-designed side character, despite being absent. We don't see him until much later, but we are constantly reminded of his despotic ways. Making absent characters so strong is no mean feat to pull off, yet one more thing that impressed me about this book.
Pilgrimage to Skara starts out as a familiar journey/quest story, but takes interesting twists and turns along the way. A lot of those come as big surprises, and even the rather cheerful ending is completely unusual for such a borderline grimdark book. I should think the ending is cliche, but somehow it works out just fine. There is no cliffhanger and the story is neatly wrapped up in the end, but this book left me wanting more. I truly hope Mr. Pembroke writes a sequel to this, I simply can't imagine a man like Wendt being happily retired farming turnips and maize for the rest of his life.
It is a shame that Pilgrimage to Skara is so severely underrated, I wholeheartedly hope it doesn't stay that way for long. The plot, the characters, the prose, the setting, everything is top notch and I simply couldn't find anything to complain about other than the typos.